NHTSA Report Number DOT HS 809 689November 2003

Results of the Survey on the Use of Passenger Air Bag On-Off Switches

Christina Morgan

Abstract

NHTSA conducted a survey to investigate how pickup truck drivers are using the passenger air bag on-off switches. The main two questions were how often the switches were turned off for child passengers and how often they were turned on for adult passengers. The survey was conducted from July to November 2000 in four States – California, Georgia, Michigan, and Texas.

On the whole, the switches have been a necessary and a fairly successful interim measure that made it possible to offer life-saving air bags to adult passengers in pickup trucks without back seats, while allowing the opportunity to protect infants and children from the hazards of air bags when they must ride in the front seats of those vehicles. Nevertheless, the survey shows many of the air bags are being left on for children and turned off for adults. Forty-eight percent of the air bags were left on when only child passengers 1-12 years old were in the front seat and 62 percent when a child and an adult passenger were in the front seat, potentially exposing these children to a deployment. There is also a problem when drivers ride with only adult passengers (age 13 and older). While 83 percent of the switches were on, as they should be, 17 percent were switched off.

Executive Summary

Even though passenger air bags have saved over 2,375 lives as of July 1, 2003, there are some people who should not be exposed to an air bag deployment. In May 1995, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a Final Rule for Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 208, allowing manufacturers to install an on-off switch for the passenger air bag in vehicles that cannot accommodate a rear-facing child safety seat anywhere except in the front seat: e.g., pickup trucks and cars either with no rear seat or with rear seats too small to accommodate rear facing child safety seats. In November 1997, NHTSA issued another Final Rule enabling owners of any vehicle to obtain, at their own expense, an aftermarket on-off switch for their passenger air bag if they transport people in certain high-risk groups.

NHTSA’s November 1997 rule also defined high-risk groups that should not be exposed to frontal passenger air bags: infants in rear-facing child safety seats, children 12 years old and younger, and adults with certain medical conditions.

The benefits of the switches are contingent on how they are used: the air bag should be turned off when a high-risk individual is seated behind it, and it should be turned on at other times. The passenger air bag should be deactivated when there is a child or infant seated in the right and/or center front seat and activated when there is an adult seated in the right front seat and there is no child or infant in the front center seat.

The manufacturers have furnished on-off switches in almost every pickup truck equipped with passenger air bags, beginning with some Ford Rangers in 1996, and extending to all models with passenger air bags by 1998. There were 11.7 million pickup trucks equipped with on-off switches on the road as of July 1, 2001. On the other hand, only 171,000 switches had been supplied as standard equipment as of July 2001 in cars or cargo vans without back seats. Only 91,482 driver or passenger aftermarket switches have been authorized by NHTSA in other vehicles as of August 2002 and only 12,513 are known to have been installed. Thus, over 97 percent of current switches are in pickup trucks.

Advanced air bags are now being developed that minimize the risk to infants and children. On May 12, 2000, NHTSA published a FMVSS No. 208 Final Rule requiring this technology to be phased in beginning with the 2004 model year. They may be designed to automatically turn the air bag on for adults and off for children less than about 6 years old. At this time in the development of air bag technology there is still a “gray” zone between 6 year olds and small adults where the air bag may or may not deploy. The air bag may be turned off for the 6 to 12 years old age group or deployed at a low force level presenting little or no risk for passengers in this age group. Sensor technology and air bag development continues in an attempt to solve this problem and eventually make air bag on-off switches unnecessary. But advanced air bags have not yet been offered in all production pickup trucks and NHTSA regulations will allow switches on pickup trucks until model year 2012, so conceivably there could be approximately 40 million pickup trucks manufactured with on-off switches if they continue to be equipped with the switches until 2012.

NHTSA conducted a survey to investigate how pickup truck drivers are using the switches. The two main questions were how often the switches were turned off for child passengers and how often they were turned on for adult passengers. Since the recommended switch setting depends on who is in the front seat at the moment, the survey was performed while the vehicles were occupied. Unlike shoulder belt use surveys, the setting of the on-off switch cannot be observed from a distance; it was necessary to talk to people in stopped vehicles.

The survey was conducted in four States—California, Georgia, Michigan, and Texas—because they have the nation’s highest rates of newer light truck registrations and because they represent diverse geographic locations. Data collection occurred in a mix of metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties, but was not a national probability sample. The surveyors conducted 3,182 interviews in July – November 2000 where the air bag status was observed. This included 617 cases where at least one front seat passenger was an infant (less than 1 year old) or a child 1-12 years old.

On the whole, the switches have been a necessary and a fairly successful interim measure that made it possible to offer life-saving air bags to adult passengers in pickup trucks without back seats, while allowing the opportunity to protect infants and children from the hazards of air bags when they must ride in the front seats of those vehicles. Nevertheless, the survey shows many of the air bags are being left on for children and turned off for adults. Much of this could be averted by improved consumer information, but some of it is intrinsic to a system that relies on human intervention. On-off switches cannot be considered a long-term solution and must be superseded by devices that automatically turn the air bag on for adults and off for children, or by low-risk air bags, as required by the advanced air bag regulation

The survey shows that owners of pickup trucks equipped with the switches are well-informed about some aspects of the switches and poorly informed about others.

The vast majority of owners know they have a switch, and what it does. Most of them knew the setting of the switch at the time they were surveyed. The great majority of owners know that air bags should be turned off for infants less than a year old and for “small” children, but on for adults

Currently, the first and most serious problem with the switches is that owners often have little idea who is a “small” child in the context of air bags. Some people believe a 3- or 4-year old can be safely exposed to air bags, while others are afraid to expose even teen-age children over six feet tall. We believe the problem could be substantially alleviated by unequivocal information directed specifically to owners of pickup trucks: turn the switch off for children up to age 12, on for almost anybody age 13 or older. (See Next Steps).

A second, and intrinsic problem with the switches – some drivers cannot remember to turn them on and off as needed. Maximum benefits are obtained if people turn the switch on every time for an adult and off for a child, but some people would rather leave the switch off all the time rather than risk forgetting to turn it off for the child. This practice leads to adult passengers not being protected by air bags

A third problem – people are turning off the switches for older passengers, because they mistakenly assume a risk for passengers, who can sit far away from the instrument panel, similar to the very real risk for short, older drivers who must sit close to the steering wheel. Consumer information could help here

A fourth problem – people who “don’t like air bags” are turning them off in moderate numbers. Six percent of the drivers surveyed had the air bag off because they “don’t like air bags.” While very few people go to the effort and expense of obtaining aftermarket switches in cars, SUVs or vans, a substantially higher number are turning off the air bag in pickup trucks, where a switch comes with the vehicle as standard equipment

A fifth, and intrinsic problem – vehicles with a child in the center front seat and an adult in the right front seat. Children 1-12 years old preferably should not be exposed to an air bag whereas nearly all adult passengers age 13 or older most likely would benefit from air bags. Therefore, drivers in these vehicles face a dilemma: should they turn off the air bag to protect the child or keep it on to protect the adult? Sixty-five percent of these drivers had the air bag on, potentially enhancing protection of the adult; only 35 percent were off, eliminating potential harm to the child from the air bag.

A sixth problem – people who borrow somebody else’s truck either don’t know about switches or are reluctant to change the setting.

Below are the specific findings and conclusions:

DRIVER’S KNOWLEDGE AND PERCEPTIONS

INFANT PASSENGERS (LESS THAN 1 YEAR OLD AND/OR IN A REAR-FACING CHILD SAFETY SEAT)

CHILD PASSENGERS 1-12 YEARS OLD

ADULT AND TEEN-AGE PASSENGERS (AGE 13 AND UP)

Observed Air Bag Status by Right Front Passenger’s Age for Vehicles with Only Adult Passengers in the Front Seat

Right Front Passenger’s Age

Percent Off

13-15

22%

16-19

17%

20-59

15%

60-69

19%

70+

56%

ADULT PASSENGER LIVES SAVED/LOST BECAUSE OF ON-OFF SWITCHES

Here are estimates of how many adult passenger lives are saved by air bags with on-off switches relative to no passenger air bags at all, and how many are lost by air bags with on-off switches relative to an air bag that is always “on” for adult passengers.

NEXT STEPS

The on-off switches are not currently accomplishing all of their potential to eliminate the risk of air bags to children. NHTSA and its partners must increase efforts to educate the public on the dangers of air bags to toddlers and pre-teens, and their benefits for adults. This needs to be a continuing effort because these pickup trucks are durable (they sometimes last 25 to 30 years); they are sometimes resold to new owners; and new pickup trucks can be equipped with on-off switches until model year 2012.

In response to these needs, NHTSA plans to:

NHTSA will develop a communication plan to explore marketing strategies that will effectively reach pickup truck drivers. The only NHTSA brochure on on-off switches is for vehicle owners deciding if they can and should obtain an aftermarket on-off switch for one or both of their air bags, not for owners of trucks that already have the switches as standard equipment. While the current brochure advises owners they might consider aftermarket switches if they transport 1-12 year old children in the front seat, it does not explicitly say to turn off the passenger air bag for these children if they obtain an aftermarket switch or if the vehicle is already equipped with the switch. The newly developed information will clearly state that the passenger air bag should be turned off when children (less than 13 years old) are seated in the right and/or center front seat. This statement will not have any caveats such as if the truck has no space in the rear seat. Eighty-eight percent of the pickup trucks in the survey with rear bench seats had children sitting in the front seat even though space was available in the back seat. It will also advise drivers where the safest place is to seat child and adult passengers, depending on the type and number of seats available in their pickup truck, for different scenarios of child and adult passengers. This information will be made available by the most effective means to pickup truck drivers and the general public.

NHTSA’s partners should participate in NHTSA’s education campaign or develop their own campaigns. They should also highlight the use of on-off switches in pickup trucks in their many promotional safety and media events at the Federal, State and local levels. If future vehicles have some kind of “safety checklist” software upon starting the engine, then manufacturers should include asking the driver of vehicles equipped with on-off switches if the passenger air bag should be on or off and advising them of its current setting. If NHTSA and its partners can educate the public to always turn the air bag off for children and on for adults, then we will increase the benefits of the on-off switches.

The complete report is available here in html format.

pdf graphic The complete report is available here in pdf format.

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