In response to concerns about children -- and others, especially smaller people -- being killed or seriously injured by malfunctioning or overly powerful airbags, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 1997 issued a final rule to allow auto manufacturers to use lower-powered airbags. This rule permits airbags to be depowered by 20 to 35 percent. In addition, starting in 1998, repair shops and dealers were allowed to install on/off switches that allow airbags to be deactivated. Vehicle owners could now be authorized (by the NHTSA) to get on/off switches installed for one or both airbags in their car if they (or other users of their car) fell into one or more of these specific risk groups:
- For both driver and passenger sides - Individuals with medical conditions in which the risks of deploying the airbag exceed the risk of impact in the absence of an airbag
- For the driver side (in addition to medical conditions) - Those who cannot position themselves to properly operate their cars at least 10 inches (25.4 cm) back from the center of the driver airbag cover
- For the passenger side (in addition to medical conditions) - Individuals who need to transport a baby in a rear-facing child restraint in the front seat because the car has no rear seat, the rear seat is too small to accommodate a rear-facing child seat or because it's necessary to constantly monitor a child's medical condition
- For the passenger side (in addition to medical conditions) - Individuals who need to carry children between one and 12 years old in the front seat because (a) the car has no rear seat, (b) the vehicle owner must carry more children than can fit into the back seat or (c) because it's necessary to constantly monitor a child's health
If you would like to get an on-off switch installed in your car, you need a copy of NHTSA's brochure, "airbags and On-Off Switches: Information for an Informed Decision," and the accompanying form, Request for airbag On-Off Switch. You can find these on the NHTSA Web site, as well as at AAA clubs, new-car dealers and state motor vehicle departments. The NHTSA will send you a letter of authorization that you can take to a repair shop. (Before you bother with all this, you should check with your auto dealer or repair shop to see if an on-off switch is available for your car.) Some retrofit on-off switches can be found and used if federal requirements are met -- switches must be operated by a key and equipped with warning lights to indicate whether the bags are turned off or on.
Obviously, even you have the option of turning it off, the airbag should be left on for drivers who can sit at least 10 inches back. For those who can't (even with the suggestions listed above), the bag can be turned off. A group of doctors at the National Conference on Medical Indications for airbag Deactivation considered the medical conditions commonly reported in letters to the NHTSA as possible justification for turning off airbags. They did not, however, recommend turning off airbags for relatively common conditions, such as:
- previous back or neck surgery
- advanced age
Generally speaking, you can't deactivate your airbag without installing a retrofit on-off switch. However, if a retrofit on-off switch is not yet available (from the vehicle manufacturer) for your car, the NHTSA will authorize airbag deactivation on a case-by-case basis under appropriate conditions. Never try to disable the bag yourself -- remember, this is no soft cushion! It packs a wallop and can hurt you when you don't know what you're doing.
As for factory-installed on-off switches, the NHTSA allows car manufacturers to install passenger airbag on-off switches in new vehicles under limited circumstances -- only if the vehicle has no rear seat or if the rear seat is too small to accommodate a rear-facing child safety seat. And manufacturers are not currently allowed to install on-off switches for the driver airbag in any new vehicle. Why these rules? The NHTSA decided against widespread factory-installed on-off switches for fear that they would become standard equipment in all new vehicles -- even those purchased by people not in at-risk groups. They also saw the integration of on-off switches into new cars (and the subsequent redesign of instrument panels) as something that would divert resources from the development of safer, more advanced airbag systems.