Do Side Impact Airbags Affect Locksmiths?

Harold Fink, Locksmith, CRL CPS
Sun, Nov 7, 2010

Opening Vehicles Equipped With Side Impact Airbags

Cars are always changing. The controversy of airbag use and their application in vehicles is a topic that is currently being hotly debated in automotive industry, the government, the press and in public opinion. Side impact airbags are a valid concern for locksmiths and should be understood before proceeding with any car opening. It is not an issue that will go away soon.


The SRS (Supplemental Restraint System) began to appear in the steering wheels of domestic and foreign cars in the early 90’s. Most of the issues of concern with SRS airbags are centered on the deployment speed and force of impact that occurs when these airbags deploy.

One thing is certain: most of the concern is directed at frontal airbags used in the steering wheel and passenger dashboard area. So why be concerned with these airbags with regard to car opening, you ask? Read on, you absolutely should be concerned.


Did you realize that there are other airbags in many of today’s cars? Some cars have six airbags on them already. It is entirely likely you will see, or have seen, eight or even as many as ten or more airbags on a single vehicle. (Breakdown: 1 steering, 1 passenger dashboard, 4 side doors, 2 side overhead, 2 knee airbags.)

One of the biggest changes to car doors is the growing use of the Side Impact Protection System or SIPS. Commonly referred to as side-impact airbags, or side air bags, there are a variety of system designs and types already on the market. The list is growing.

Some manufacturers put the SIPS airbag in the door cavity while others put it the door cavity while others put it on the frame seat. Activating sensors can be mounted in the door cavity, seat trim panel or door pillar.

Existing and upcoming airbags under testing are for head protection and knee protection. Because the various airbag systems are tied together with the frontal and side impact airbags, here is a quick overview of ITS and LEP.


Inflatable Tubular Structure (ITS) is a woven tube with internal bladder that is fixed to the windshield pillar and roof to provide a tube-shaped cushion across the window opening. They are triggered by the SIPS sensors.


Lower Extremity Protection or LEP airbags are already in place since the ‘97 KIA Sportage utility vehicle. These airbags for knees and legs are housed in the lower dash bolster and are activated in conjunction with the SRS or frontal airbags. Again, more makers have imitated this move.


Side Impact Protection Systems, or side impact airbags, are the ones to be most aware of when performing auto lockout services. It is not yet known if it is possible to trigger a sensor, or deploy an airbag, by hitting it with a car opening tool.

IN the PRO-LOCK 1997 car opening update, you’ll see a small red and yellow triangular warning sign alerting you to the fact that SIPS is pressent in the vehicle. Whenever possible, it makes a sense to open the vehicle at the rear door if SIPS is present in the front door. As always, exception will be found. Because some manufacturers are using anti-tool entry guard plates to protect latches and linkages, the front door may be a preferred target for unlocking.

Whenever you attempt to open any vehicle with side impact airbags, you need to use every resource available to you to do it professionally. As a professional lockout technician, the more technical information at your fingertips, the better. Do not simply ignore side impact airbags. Become informed. Learn about the airbag systems, their placement, and placement of the sensor units.

Avoiding Problems

The use of a high intensity protection light is strongly recommended to view the inner view cavity during the opening procedure.

On many newer vehicles, the light will direct you to the intended lockout target and away from the components connected to the SIPS.

In addition, a professional and up-to-date auto opening manual will give you clear directions, warnings, tips and tricks on getting the new vehicles open without doing damage. Always read and follow specific unlocking directions for each car, and remember to use caution and good judgement when attempting to unlock any car with side impact airbags.

Finally, and most importantly, do not use the old butter churning method with any tool, including a Slim Jim. I have never used this method and consider it to be completly unprofessional. I suppose that blindly fishing around inside a door cavity used to be an accepted entry method for others. In today’s high-tech, sophisticated cars, it can be a very costly, completely avoidable mistake, resulting in damage to the vehicle, yourself, and to others. If you are good with a slim jim, you are also probably very good at knowing exactly what area you would want to apply it, and use of the butter churning motion would not be used at all. Unfortunately, because so many movie actors, tow operators, and emergency personnel can still be seen doing this, it is worth noting that it should NOT be done. It is not something I would ever want to see an apprentice of mine doing, and is cause for writing of this article.

Liability rests squarely in your lap. Locksmiths tend to use the tools and information available to us to perform lockout services in the most efficient manner possible. Lockouts can be a great source of income to locksmiths. They should be prompt, professional and affordable. However, should it be found that you worked on a specific door of a vehicle wherein the airbag sensor was damaged and did not deploy an air bag in a collision, I would not want to be liable for the injuries sustained to the occupant(s) of that vehicle should that vehicle ever be involved in a collision. Therefore, be deliberate in your opening methods, always considering where side impact air bags are placed on a vehicle to be opened, and the placement of the sensors that deploy them. To ignore side impact air bags is basically to ignore the safety of your customer or anyone that were to purchase the vehicle from them in the future. Make sure your liability in this matter is completely defined by a disclaimer on your invoice, should you ever feel it is necessary. With proper resources, experience, and good judgement, any vehicle using side impact air bags can be opened efficiently and without damage.