The 9 Best Air Bag Scan Tools

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This wiki has been updated 14 times since it was first published in October of 2016. It's one thing to ignore that "Check Engine" light for a day or two; it's another thing entirely to disregard the air bag warning indicator. With a good diagnostic scan tool in your hands, you can quickly examine an issue with a car's safety systems, and you can also often assess the function of the transmission, the cylinders, the navigation equipment, and more, too. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki. Skip to the best air bag scan tool on Amazon.

9. OTC Tools 3211

8. Innova Car Scan

7. Autel MaxiCom

5. Autel MD802

4. Ancel FX4000

3. Foxwell NT630

1. Ancel VD500

A Brief History Of Airbags

It's never been less dangerous to be behind the wheel — so why don't you text everyone you know and tell them about it?

Cars have certainly made our lives easier, but they have a nasty tendency to be death traps. Luckily, death rates from car crashes seem to be dropping, and that's largely due to two things: seat belts and airbags.

The airbag was first invented in 1951 by an American industrial engineer named John W. Hetrick. His system involved using compressed air that could be released by a spring on impact, or even by the driver if so desired. However, his device wouldn't inflate fast enough to be useful in the event of a collision.

As a result, interest in airbags faded away until 1971, when Ford installed them in a few cars as an experiment. That experiment was far from promising, however, as these airbags tended to shatter the windshield, be useless in the event of an angular collision, and oh yeah — they frequently dished out fatal blows to child-sized dummies.

General Motors experimented with their own airbags a few years later, although they limited their use to a single model of Chevrolet that was only sold to the government. That same year, however, Oldsmobile released their Toronado, which was the first vehicle with a passenger airbag available to the public.

GM upped the ante by announcing plans to outfit 100,000 cars with air bags every year during the mid-1970s. However, only about 10,000 of those vehicles ever sold.

It would be Mercedes-Benz that finally managed to interest the public in their use. They began adding them to cars in 1984, and by the end of the decade many manufacturers were offering them as standard equipment.

The first known collision between two vehicles equipped with airbags happened in Virginia in 1990. Both cars were totaled in the wreck — but the drivers walked away with only minor injuries.

In 1991, Congress passed legislation requiring all cars built after 1998 to include airbags for both the driver and right-front passenger. Their increased use during the 1990s is believed to have saved nearly 5,000 lives. However, there were several notable instances where they might have directly caused fatalities, as well.

Manufacturers tackled this problem by developing variable-force deployment models, which tailors their release to the severity of the crash, the size of the occupant, and their proximity to the airbag. This, combined with the addition of as many as nine bags per automobile, has led to them being much safer.

Today, virtually every car on the road is equipped with at least some form of airbag, and driving continues to get safer even as there are more cars on the road. It's never been less dangerous to be behind the wheel — so why don't you text everyone you know and tell them about it?

How Airbags Work

Before we explain how airbags work, we should probably go over what, exactly, they're intended to do. They're actually designed as a supplementary restraint system, which means that they work in tandem with your seat belts to keep you from flying through the glove compartment in the event of a crash.

All that's just a long way of saying: wear your seat belt. Just relying on an airbag is a great way to end up in a body bag.

When you get in a car accident, the first thing that happens is there's a sudden drop in speed.

When you get in a car accident, the first thing that happens is there's a sudden drop in speed. An accelerometer in the airbag system detects this change in velocity, and if it's significant enough, activates the airbags by passing an electrical current through a heating element.

This ignites a chemical explosive, which is just awesome. Originally, sodium azide was used, but now there are a variety of chemicals available. The explosion generates a tremendous amount of gas (insert your own joke here). This gas — usually nitrogen or argon — floods a nylon bag, which rapidly inflates.

The bag has small holes along the edges, because it needs to be able to deflate as rapidly as it blows up. If it didn't, it would be like having your head smash into a brick wall — so, basically exactly like what would happen if you didn't have an airbag at all. By the time your vehicle stops moving, the bag should be completely deflated — and you should hopefully be safe.

How To Check If Your Airbags Are In Good Shape

The thing about airbags is, you really can't use them until you need them, and when you need them, you really need them to work. So, what are you supposed to do?

Unfortunately, there's not a great way to check the status of the airbags themselves, short of hitting your bumper with a hammer.

Most airbag scan tools check everything in the car's onboard diagnostic system, so they should be able to tell you everything that's happening with your car, from revealing the reason behind a "check engine" light to telling you to get an oil change. If your car's airbag warning light is on, it can tell you why — as well as exactly what's going on with it.

Unfortunately, there's not a great way to check the status of the airbags themselves, short of hitting your bumper with a hammer. If there's no warning light giving you cause for concern, then, well, you likely don't have any cause for concern.

That being said, older airbags are more likely to be defective, so if you're driving around a used car, you might want to have your mechanic take a look at them even if your warning light isn't going off. Again, better safe than sorry, and you don't want to find out the hard way that yours aren't working properly.

It's a good idea to run diagnostics on your car regularly anyway, and having an airbag scan tool can help you understand what's going on under your hood — and how painful it'll be to fix it.

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Christopher Thomas
Last updated on August 13, 2018 by Christopher Thomas

Building PCs, remodeling, and cooking since he was young, quasi-renowned trumpeter Christopher Thomas traveled the USA performing at and organizing shows from an early age. His work experiences led him to open a catering company, eventually becoming a sous chef in several fine LA restaurants. He enjoys all sorts of barely necessary gadgets, specialty computing, cutting-edge video games, and modern social policy. He has given talks on debunking pseudoscience, the Dunning-Kruger effect, culinary technique, and traveling. After two decades of product and market research, Chris has a keen sense of what people want to know and how to explain it clearly. He delights in parsing complex subjects for anyone who will listen -- because teaching is the best way to ensure that you understand things yourself.

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