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Pre-purchase vehicle inspection

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Will a vehicle pass an inspection with the airbag light on?

According to some of the UK’s leading breakdown and recovery services, around 50% of vehicles on our roads have some kind of hidden history. With this in mind, a pre-purchase inspection is a great way of making sure you’ve got full confidence when you take to the road in your new car. 

But what happens if something’s not quite right? Would a report comment on an airbag warning light? And would might the problem be if the airbag warning light is on?

Here, we’ll explore the airbag warning light in more detail – and explain exactly what your report will show if there’s a problem with the airbag. 

What is an airbag warning light?

The airbag warning light is fairly easily spotted. It’s an amber or red coloured light that looks like a seatbelted figure with a circle (depicting the airbag) in front of them. You’ll find the airbag warning light in the middle of the dials that make up the instrument cluster behind your steering wheel.

Like other warning lights, the airbag warning comes on every time you start your car. This is because the car’s Engine Control Unit (ECU) performs an electrical test before the engine starts. Most of the time, these lights only stay on for a couple of seconds – but if your airbag warning stays on, it could mean there’s a more serious problem.

How does an airbag work?

Airbags are designed to reduce any potential trauma to a driver or passenger in the event of an accident. To do this, they contain a very small explosive charge which is triggered if certain crash sensors detect an impact. 

Hopefully, you’ve never been (and never will be) involved in an accident that causes the airbags to deploy – but if you have, you’ll know airbags make quite a loud bang as they inflate. This is the charge going off – filling the airbag with nitrogen and forcing it from its compact resting place.

An airbag inflates in around 0.03 seconds – and when it does, it gives the occupants of the car a soft surface to cushion any impact that the accident’s caused. Immediately afterwards, the airbag deflates. Airbags are considered to be a life-saving factor in thousands of accidents every year.

What does the airbag warning light mean?

Since we’ve now used the terms “explosive charge” and “life-saving” – you can probably understand why it’s important that you never ignore an airbag warning light.

In fact, fairly recent changes to testing rules now mean that an illuminated airbag warning light will result in a failed MOT – so, sooner or later, an airbag warning light will mean your car cannot be driven on the road.

With this in mind, it’s worth considering what your airbag warning light could be trying to tell you. Some common issues include:

A minor accident

In some cases, an accident that hasn’t caused the airbag to deploy will still make the airbag warning light come on. This often just needs a garage with diagnostic equipment to reset the airbag – but it could be evidence that the car’s been involved in a bump.

Steering wheel removal

If the steering wheel’s been taken off the car for any reason, the break in the electrical connection between the airbag sensor and the ECU could mean the airbag warning light will come on. It may be that the car has an aftermarket non-airbag steering wheel – or that the wheel’s just been removed for access the steering column. Either way, the warning light will need to be addressed.

An electrical fault

Since the airbag relies on a series of accelerometer sensors around the car to detect impacts, there’s a lot of wiring involved with the airbag system. As such, it’s possible there could be faults somewhere in this system that are causing the light to show.

Airbags deployed

Perhaps somewhat obviously, the airbag warning light could mean that the airbags have been deployed. This will be clear to see if they have not been replaced, as there will be significant damage to the interior of the car around each airbag – as well as a number of deflated airbags. It’s unlikely anyone will sell a car in this state of disrepair – but it is another possible reason the airbag warning light could show up.

Will an airbag warning light fail an inspection?

Unlike an MOT, a vehicle inspection isn’t a test – so there’s no way any car will pass or fail. However, the report will show a series of alerts for numerous points through the car. Those alerts will usually be:

  • Green: OK
  • Amber: Warning
  • Red: Danger
  • Grey: N/A

If there’s a warning light showing, it will be noted in the Road test section of the report and will show as a red danger warning. 

Should you buy a car with the airbag warning light on?

A pre-inspection report isn’t designed to tell you whether or not to buy a particular car; instead, it’s there to give you all the information so you can make a fully informed decision about the car yourself.

If you’re hoping to buy a flawless car with no issues, then an airbag warning light will probably be enough to put you off; especially as it could suggest the car’s been in an accident, and will certainly fail its next MOT if the problem’s not rectified. 

Then again, if you’re buying the car on the understanding that there’s work needed before it can be safely driven, then the airbag warning light might not be a problem. 

The great news is, a pre-inspection report will tell you everything there is to know about the car. So, if the airbag warning is on, we’ll let you know – and there’s a very good chance that the diagnostic report section of the inspection will give you more information about the problem. 

Ultimately, the choice is yours – but if you want to be 100% certain you’re buying a car that you can jump into and drive away safely, you might be better avoiding vehicles that have warning lights lighting up the dash.

Other related FAQs

Looking for more related content to this? We’ve picked a selection of related topics that you may find helpful

Since a pre-purchase vehicle inspection is not test, a vehicle will never pass or fail. However, an anti-lock braking system (ABS) warning light is likely to mean the system isn’t working as it should. An inspection will flag this as a dangerous issue.

In the UK, a pre-purchase vehicle inspection isn’t a test – it’s a way of generating a report about the condition of the car. As such, there’s no pass or fail – but an illuminated engine management light could be a problem, and will be noted on the report.

A cracked windscreen will not fail an inspection – simply because a pre-purchase inspection isn’t designed to be passed or failed. Instead, the report that’s produced will comment on the windscreen and provide photos, so you can decide if that car’s right for you.