A car accident — even a minor fender bender — can damage many parts of your vehicle. You may already know that if your airbag deploys, you can't just cram it back in and call it a day — you need a new one. But did you know that experts also recommend you inspect and replace other components, too? Here's what you should get checked on your vehicle after a crash.
1. Driver assistance systems
Your car may look fine to you, but that doesn't mean it's working optimally. Today's vehicles are loaded with sophisticated technology, including various electronic sensors, cameras and radar that constantly monitor your car. It doesn't take much of an impact to disrupt these interconnected systems, says Jeff Hawkins, assistant vice president at the American Automobile Association's Auto Physical Damage Division in Dearborn, Michigan.
"Depending on whether the damage is in proximity to one of those sensors or cameras, it could put the operator in harm's way,” says Hawkins.
Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) help reduce the likelihood of an accident by warning the driver about potential collisions, he adds. Blind spot detectors beep when approaching objects or other vehicles, and forward automatic emergency braking will try to stop the vehicle if the driver doesn't react.
"If these systems aren't restored to their pre-accident conditions, it could put the vehicle's occupants and others on the road at risk if they don't perform as they were designed to,” explains Hawkins.
2. Diagnostic trouble codes
Take your car to an Automotive Service of Excellence-certified facility that has access to original equipment manufacturer (OEM) repair information. A thorough inspection makes sure the structural integrity of the car's frame, steering and suspension components are functioning properly. Reputable shops should also have access to scanning devices to detect diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs) that might have been triggered by an accident.
"Just because a dash light isn't on doesn't mean no codes were tripped as a result of the collision, and you can only get access to those DTCs by running the vehicle through a scan,” explains Hawkins.
Even with a minor fender bender or curb check, there could be some damage, says Frank Leutz, 52, an ASE-certified mechanic and owner of Desert Car Care in Chandler, Arizona. Leutz also hosts the Wrench Nation Car Talk radio show.
"There's a data link connector on all modern vehicles that relates to airbag systems, collision warning systems and corrective steering systems,” explains Leutz.
A technician hooks a computer to this data link to retrieve error codes from the car's onboard system, and if the engine is running, the scan can also preview live data and test circuits.
"It's very similar to an MRI — a full body scan for your car that leaves less room for error than relying on just eyeballing things,” Leutz says.
If you don't assess potential ADAS problems, you can have issues down the road, adds Leutz. For example, when the systems aren't calibrated properly, your car may pull to the right.
"You'll think the vehicle's out of alignment when, in fact, the camera systems are not seeing properly,” he explains.
And if your rear bumper was tapped in a parking lot, you'll see a dent, but you won't see if the arming sensor for your airbags was affected, he adds.
3. Suspension and driveability
Whether you've been rear-ended, hit a big pothole or driven over your kid's bike, your car might feel different after an incident. Don't dismiss odd noises, shakes or handling issues, cautions Leutz. These can indicate a serious problem with your vehicle. For example, if you hit a parking barrier in a supermarket lot and dented the wheel, it may still be drivable, but now has a wobble.
"You may think you just need to replace the tire and rim, but that spindle assembly is like the wrist joint attaching your hand to your forearm: There are linkages and major suspension components that could be off just a couple of degrees, and that can affect how the vehicle is going to drive,” explains Leutz.
Report anything unusual to the collision expert. Then, ask exactly what will be done to the car, including how the technicians will assess the damage.
4. Seat belts
Most car owners don't think about the webbing on seat belts, but drivers should know this important safety feature isn't indestructible, says Leutz. If a crash detonates airbags, the car will need new seat belts, too.
"If an airbag has gone off, you're changing the tension loads for the seat belt buckle and, almost always, there's going to be a fault error code for the seat belt system,” explains Leutz. “Depending on the impact and how severe [the crash] was, it directly correlates to the webbing on a seat belt being compromised."
5. The repairs
After repairs are complete, Leutz says the technician should do a final scan of the vehicle systems to double-check that any tripped DTCs have been resolved before returning the car to its owner.
"Walk around your car, and ask them to point out what was done and to explain the specifics,” says Leutz.
Ask about warranty terms for the repairs and request a post-repair inspection in 60 days.
"It's like a follow-up with a doctor after open-heart surgery to give everyone peace of mind. This way, if there are any issues, they can be addressed,” he adds.
One last thing: Take a test drive before leaving the garage
Gary Wollenhaupt, 57, who lives in Surprise, Arizona, got an unpleasant surprise several years ago when his minivan sustained $8,000 worth of damage after being rear-ended. His vehicle looked great when he picked it up, but when he got in the driver's seat, something didn't feel right.
"On the way home, I thought maybe the seat wasn't adjusted properly,” recalls Wollenhaupt. “Then, I had my wife sit in the seat, and we figured out the frame of the driver's seat was bent and twisted from the impact of the crash."
Although Wollenhaupt was told the car had been inspected, he figures nobody actually got into it to check the seat. He contacted his insurance company to report the repair was not complete, and the body shop sourced a replacement seat.
Vehicle owners know their cars better than anybody else, including how they feel, sound and smell, says Hawkins, so trust your instincts.
"If anything feels off, drivers should absolutely notify the repair agency as soon as possible for further investigation,” he says.
Wendy Helfenbaum is a contributing writer who covers home improvement, gardening, automotive, real estate and travel. She's written for outlets including Apartment Therapy, Houzz, BBC.com, WomansDay.com, and Costco Connection.