Interior of vehicle with deployed airbags

Car seat covers have been around almost as long as there have been automotive seats to put them on. Up until recently, no one thought much about their seat covers beyond picking the camo or Navajo pattern. But with many front seats now packing side-impact airbags, there is fresh concern over whether car seat covers pose a risk in the event of the airbag deploying. Here’s what you need to know about whether car seat covers are safe with airbags.

Where Are The Airbags Located in my Seats?

SRS Airbag indicator in vehicle

In nearly all new cars for sale today, the front seats feature side-impact airbags stuffed away into the outer bolsters. If you want to check if your car is so equipped, take a look at the side of the driver’s seat facing towards the door and see if you can spot a small tag marked ‘SRS Airbag.’ That tag denotes if your seats have airbags.

What Happens When the Airbag Deploys?

Computer sensors tucked into the doors and body panels can recognize when an accident is occurring; in the event of a side-impact collision, the sensors send an SOS signal to the computer, which then in turn gives the OK to discharge the seat-mounted airbags. All of this happens within 1/20th of a second, according to the NHTSA.1

At discharge, an explosive canister forces the airbag out of its protective housing at an almost violent velocity.2 Special stitching along the side of the seat allows the airbag to easily penetrate the fabric covering that, at a glance, looks no different than any other part of the seat upholstery.

If you’re properly belted in, the airbag is able to spring up and prevent your head and body from slamming into the windshield and other hard surfaces before you’ve even processed what’s happening.3 But it can only do that if it isn’t impeded by something such as a seat cover.

How Do Seat Covers Affect Airbag Deployment?

Airbags deployed in a crash test

The engineers who designed the side-impact airbag system planned precisely how the airbag would deploy and the direction it would take as it inflated.4 In their calculations, they did not bake in an allowance for seat covers.

Seat covers can throw a wrench into the carefully-laid plans of airbag performance. If the area where the airbag deploys from is even partially obstructed, the airbag will be thrown off its intended path. It may inflate in such a way that it does not protect the driver from the accident – and maybe even cause additional injuries.5

Universal seat covers are the worst offenders. These covers, which are designed to fit a wide swath of different vehicles, typically shroud the entire seat. This fitment can entirely negate the purpose of side-impact airbags. If the entirety of the airbag deployment area is covered by a tight-fitting fabric, the airbag won’t be able to quickly fill the space between the driver and the immediate surroundings of metal and glass. Considering how fast accidents happen – according to Car and Driver, a driver’s head will make contact with the steering wheel in about 23 milliseconds during a 30-mph impact – such a delay can be the difference between life-threatening injuries and walking away shaken but unhurt.6

Are There Seat Covers Compatible With Airbags?

Luckily, there have been some efforts to design seat covers with side-impact airbags in mind, though such offerings remain the minority. Two good options are covers such as these or these by FH Group, which feature special stitching designed to quickly pull away if the airbag deploys. For more options, see our take on the best seat covers.

You’ll want to watch out for seat covers that hold in place with nylon straps. Positioned correctly, these straps can be kept clear of the airbag deployment zone. However, it is easy for these straps to slip, stretch, and adjust as you continuously scoot in and out of the car. It’s likely that the straps will eventually position themselves over the airbag area, which can pose a serious issue during airbag deployment.

We wouldn’t be tempted by this option, nor any other type of cover that doesn’t make accommodations for side-mounted airbags. You’re better off holding out for covers that are expressly designed to be airbag compatible.

Parting Thoughts

If you plan on shopping for seat covers, you’ll want to ensure that they are compatible with seat-mounted airbags. Most seat-cover products don’t consider airbags in their design, and finding those that do can require a bit of digging. That said, it’s worth the additional legwork if it means staying safe in the event of an accident – as the adage goes, better an ounce of prevention than a pound of cure. Such diligence might mean forgoing those covers with the snazzy camo print, however.

Article Sources

Ride Digest uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. NHTSA. Air Bags. Nhtsa.gov. Accessed April 22, 2021.
  2. Casiday R, Frey R. Gas Laws Save Lives: The Chemistry Behind Airbags. Wustl.edu. Updated October 2000. Accessed April 22, 2021.
  3. Fereiro S. How airbags work to protect you on the road. Economical.com. Published November 29, 2016. Accessed April 22, 2021.
  4. IIHS. Airbags. Iihs.org. Accessed April 22, 2021.
  5. Turner B. Your Corner Wrench: Seat covers and airbags do not mix. Driving.ca. Published September 5, 2017. Accessed April 22, 2021.
  6. Huffman JP. The Physics Of Airbags. Caranddriver.com. Published June 14, 2011. Accessed April 22, 2021.

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