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Buying a Used Car: Can You Add Modern Safety Features to an Older Model?

If you’re interested in buying a used car, you’ve undoubtedly discovered that many used models aren’t quite as safe as the latest vehicles on the market. Depending on the model year and the vehicle you’re considering, you may have found that some used cars are short on any number of safety features, from the latest safety gadgets (such as lane-departure warning and forward-collision alert) to more common items such as side airbags, front airbags, anti-lock brakes, backup cameras and traction control. So if you buy an older used car without these items, is it possible to add them later? Here’s the answer:

Usually Not

Unfortunately, many modern safety systems are built in to the vehicle from the factory, and that means you won’t be able to add them without great expense that would likely outstrip the cost of the car.

For instance: A vehicle equipped without anti-lock brakes can’t simply be retrofitted to add the feature, as it would require re-engineering of the car’s entire braking system — and many electrical components. The same goes for traction control and stability control: if not installed in the factory, you can forget about it. And while airbags might be possible to retrofit, we suspect they would come at great expense — and we also conclude potential liability issues would prevent virtually any company from carrying out the job.

Some Exceptions

With that said, there are a few safety features you can retrofit to an older car. A backup camera is the most obvious and the most common — and it requires surprisingly little work if you’re a do-it-yourselfer, or cost if you’d prefer to have it installed. Aftermarket backup cameras or parking sensors can easily be mounted on the rear of the vehicle, and they offer several choices for relaying information to the driver.

It’s the same story with forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems. While you can’t retrofit a forward-collision warning system that will automatically slow down your car or a lane-departure warning system that will keep you in your lane, you should have no trouble finding several companies that make systems offering an alert for forward collisions or accidental lane departure. These systems can be expensive, but once installed, they’re often just as good as factory units.

Another exception are seat belts. If you’re driving an old car from the 1960s or earlier that wasn’t originally manufactured with seat belts, you can usually find companies that offer aftermarket seat belts. But given the car’s old design, don’t expect these aftermarket belts to offer the same level of protection that a newer seat belt would.

Our Take

While we appreciate the idea of aftermarket parking sensors, forward-collision warning systems, backup cameras and lane-departure warning systems, we’d rather have our vehicles with more important safety features such as stability control, anti-lock brakes and a litany of airbags. If you feel the same way, your only option is to look into buying a used car with more features — and, unfortunately, a higher price.


Doug Demuro
Doug Demuro
Doug DeMuro writes articles and makes videos, mainly about cars. Doug was born in Denver, Colorado, and received an economics degree from Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation, Doug spent three years working for Porsche Cars North America. Eventually, he quit his job to become a writer, largely because it meant that he no longer had to wear pants. Doug’s work has been featured in a... Read More about Doug Demuro

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