Questions & Answers Regarding Air Bags

March 1997


Index


Q1: Do all new vehicles (1996 or 1997 models) have air bags? Can I buy a new vehicle without air bags?
A: Almost all new cars have dual (driver and passenger side) air bags. Starting in model year 1998, all new passenger cars must have dual air bags. Starting in model year 1999, all new light trucks must have dual air bags.

Q2: Can I disable the air bag(s) in my vehicle? How can it be done? Who do I contact?
A: Disabling an air bag is difficult and can be dangerous. Federal law prohibits dealers, repair shops, etc. from disabling air bags. Further, state inspection laws may require air bags to be fully functional. More important, because air bags have been shown to save more than 1,750 lives, NHTSA strongly discourages disabling except in special circumstances.

On January 6, 1997, NHTSA issued a Federal Register notice proposing that all owners be permitted to have their driver and/or passenger air bags disabled if they are made aware of the consequences and sign an informed consent agreement. This proposal was open for comments through February 5, 1997. The agency will make a final decision on this proposal. A copy of this proposal can be found on the Internet (www.nhtsa.dot.gov) or if you provide your name and address, a copy will be mailed to you. Until that final decision is made, owners must follow the agency's current policy which is to grant exemptions in cases involving either a child in a rear-facing child seat who has a medical condition requiring close monitoring by the driver, or a vehicle that does not have any rear seat in which to install a child seat.


Q3: To whom can I speak regarding disabling of the air bag?
A: Until such time when the new rules to allow dealers and repair businesses to disable air bags become effective, the agency may on a case by case basis exempt persons from the prohibition against disabling air bags if it makes a determination that the exemption is consistent with safety. So that the agency can have a complete and accurate account of your concerns, we ask that you please put your concerns/comments/requests in writing and appropriate agency personnel will respond. Any petition for exemption or any comments can be addressed to the Administrator. We will be glad to take your name and address and mail you an information sheet about air bags. In addition, if you would like a copy of the proposal to disable air bags, we will be glad to send one if you provide your name and address.

Q4: What is the time it takes for the agency to respond to requests for permission to disconnect an air bag?
A: In the relatively few instances that involve infants with medical problems, the agency has responded within two weeks.

Q5: Why can't permission be granted to disable my air bag prior to the effective date of the final rule?
A: Air bags have been shown to save more than 1,750 lives. Therefore, the agency is concerned that any benefits achieved by disabling of air bags could be outweighed by additional deaths that could occur. Until the agency decides on the best course of action, it is our policy to grant exemptions only in cases involving either a child in a rear-facing child seat who has a medical condition requiring close monitoring by the driver, or a vehicle that does not have any rear seat in which to install a child seat.

Q6: What do I do if a dealer does not honor a waiver for disconnecting an air bag issued by NHTSA to an individual?
A: NHTSA does not have authority to require any dealer to disconnect an air bag. If a dealer will not disconnect an air bag for a vehicle owner that has obtained a waiver to disconnect, the owner should seek another dealer. If other dealers will not disconnect the air bag the owner could contact an independent service garage. An owner should never attempt to disconnect the air bag themselves. An air bag system is highly sophisticated and the air bag deploys with great force. Tampering with an air bag system could put the owner at risk of physical harm due to an inadvertent deployment.

Q7: Can I have a cut-off switch installed in my car?
A: A few new vehicles have factory installed cut-off switches for the passenger side air bag. This is allowed only in new vehicles that have no rear seat position or a rear seat that is too small for a rear-facing infant seat. Cut-off switches may be installed by dealers or repair shops for a passenger air bag in older vehicles that have no rear seat position or a rear seat that is too small for a rear facing infant seat. However, cut-off switches cannot currently be installed in any other older vehicles.

No cut-off switches are permitted for the driver-side bag in any vehicle, new or used.

NHTSA has decided not to extend the availability of cut-off switches to any vehicles other than those which have no rear seats or a back seat that is too small for a rear-facing infant seat.


Q8: If a rule is finalized to allow the disconnection of air bags, will consumers be able to order a new car with the air bags disconnected?
A: The rule to allow disconnecting air bags is a proposal at this point in time. The answer to this question will be known when a decision is made on the final rule.

Q9: I read that NHTSA recently issued new rules allowing manufacturers to depower the air bags in new vehicles. The car I now own has an air bag. Can I have a depowered air bag retrofitted in my car?
A: NHTSA issued a final rule to permit manufacturer's to use lower powered air bags. This recent proposal will permit air bags to be depowered by 20 to 35 percent. Manufacturers are not required by the new rule to install depowered air bags in older cars. Each manufacturer will decide how to design and manufacture new air bags for its vehicles to meet the new rule.

Q10: Should I put a rear-facing infant seat in the front seat of a vehicle with a passenger side air bag?
A: No. Unless the vehicle is equipped with a cut-off switch for the air bag and the air bag is shut off, under absolutely no circumstances should a parent place a rear-facing infant seat in front of an air bag. There is an extremely high risk of severe injury or fatality in this situation, and a child should never be subjected to this risk. Even if the air bag is shut off or there is no air bag, the safest place for all children 12 and under is in the rear seat.

Many parents are concerned about having an infant rear-facing in the rear seat. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics stresses that a healthy baby buckled correctly in a rear-facing infant seat is as safe as a baby placed in a crib for a nap or overnight sleep. The risk of serious injury in a crash is much greater than the risk of a healthy baby havinga life threatening health problem during a car ride. If no rear seat is available in which to place a rear-facing infant seat, and another mode of transportation is available, use of that alternative should be considered.


Q11: Should I put a forward-facing child safety seat in the right front seat with an air bag? Will the child be safe if the air bag deploys?
A: NHTSA recommends placing all children 12 and under in the rear seat. That is the safest place. If no option exists other than seating a young child in the front seat, several steps must be taken. First, the child needs to be properly restrained in the child seat. Second, the vehicle seat needs to be pushed all the way back, to maximize the distance between the child and the air bag.

Q12: My child is too old for a child seat. Should I allow my child to ride in the front seat with an air bag? Will the child be safe if the air bag deploys?
A: NHTSA recommends placing all children 12 and under in the rear seat. That is the safest place. If no option exists other than seating them in the front seat, several steps need to be taken. First, the child needs to be properly restrained. This means, depending on the size of the child, you should use a booster seat plus a lap/shoulder belt, or a lap/shoulder belt alone (for larger children). Second, the vehicle seat needs to be pushed all the way back, to maximize the distance between the child and the air bag. Third, the child needs to be sitting with his/her back against the seat back, not wiggling around or leaning forward, with as little slack as possible in the belt in order to minimize forward movement in a crash.

Q13: How did the agency determine that age 12 was the appropriate age below which children must be seated in the rear for maximum protection? Wouldn't height and weight be better determinants than age?
A: All children are safest in the rear of a vehicle, regardless of their age or size. In recommending that children 12 and under never sit in the front seat of a vehicle which is equipped with a passenger air bag, the agency reviewed all crashes in which children were killed due to impacts from the air bag. In no instance, has a child above the age of nine been killed by the air bag. While height and weight could be useful determinants of a child's safety in air bag-equipped vehicles, there are no known precise measurements that can be used that will guarantee that no injuries or fatalities will occur. Each vehicle is equipped with a unique air bag which will deploy with a different force. Thus, generalizations as to height and weight cannot be made. We do, however, know that children are safest in the rear of vehicles. If no option exists other than seating them in the front seat, several steps need to be taken. First, the child needs to be properly restrained. This means, depending on the size of the child, a booster seat plus a lap/shoulder belt, or a lap/shoulder belt alone (for larger children). Second, the vehicle seat needs to be pushed all the way back, to maximize the distance between the chid and the air bag. Third, the child needs to be sitting with his/her back against the seat back, not wiggling around or leaning forward, with as little slack as possible in the belt in order to minimize forward movement in a crash.

Q14: I'm a short person, so I sit very close to the steering wheel. What can I do to avoid serious injuries from the air bag?
A: It is important to remember that the number of drivers killed by air bags is small and that many more drivers are saved by air bags than are killed by them. A majority of the drivers killed by an air bag were not using their safety belts.

All drivers need to be properly belted and sit as far away from the air bag as possible to allow the air bag to deploy. Short drivers should move the driver's seat rearward to allow as much space as possible between the driver's chest and the steering wheel. The seat back may be tilted back slightly to help maximize this distance. To the extent possible, the driver should hold the steering wheel from the side so that his or her arms aren't between the driver and the air bag. This arm positioning will allow the bag more room to deploy.


Q15: At what height and weight is an individual considered at risk when driving an air bag equipped vehicle?
A: There is no precise height and weight at which an individual is considered to be at risk. The primary determinant as to whether an individual will be injured by a deploying air bag is the distance from which the individual is seated from the air bag.

Q16: What is considered a safe distance to sit from the steering wheel in an air bag equipped vehicle?
A: All drivers need to be properly belted and sit as far from the air bag as possible to allow the air bag to deploy. Short drivers should move the driver's seat rearward to allow space between the driver's chest and the steering wheel, and the seat back should be tilted back slightly. There is no precise distance known that will guarantee that no injuries will occur because all air bags are unique and deploy with different forces. However, the driver should refrain from leaning forward and, to the extent possible, the driver should hold the steering wheel from the side so that his/her arms aren't between the driver and the air bag.

Q17: Is it safe for short adults to be seated in the front passenger seat of a vehicle equipped with a passenger-side air bag?
A: Yes. However, all passengers should be properly restrained, regardless of size. All front seat passengers (adults and children) should move the seat as far rearward as possible, and may tilt the seat back slightly to help maximize the distance between the driver's chest and the steering wheel. In order to allow the air bag to deploy safely, front seat passengers should avoid leaning or reaching forward and should remain seated against the vehicle seat back, with as little slack in the belt as possible to minimize forward movement in a crash.

Q18: Is it safe for elderly people to be seated in front of an air bag?
A: Elderly people, like all other drivers and front seat passengers, should be properly restrained and should move the seat as far rearward as possible, being careful to remain seated against the vehicle seat back and keeping the arms away from the area in which the air bag will deploy.

Q19: I am pregnant. Is it safe for me a be seated in front of a air bag?
A: The agency is currently reviewing the effect of air bags on pregnant women. NHTSA currently recommends that pregnant women wear their seat belts. The shoulder portion should be positioned over the collar bone. The lap portion should be placed under the abdomen as low as possible on the hips and across the upper thighs, never above the abdomen. Also, pregnant women should sit as far from the air bag as possible.

Q20: What is the government currently doing and going to do to prevent child and small driver fatalities caused by air bags? When will the decisions and changes be made?
A: NHTSA has announced three new finalized rules and proposed other rules to reduce the risk to children and small drivers. NHTSA issued a final rule requiring that all new cars have labels placed conspicuously on the sun visors, dashboards, and child restraints in order to alert occupants to the dangers of placing children in the front seat of vehicles with air bags. NHTSA issued a final rule extending the period of time manufacturers can offer passenger air bag cut-off switches in vehicles with no rear seats or small rear seats. And most recently, NHTSA issued a final rule to permit manufacturer's to use lower powered air bags. This recent proposal will permit air bags to be depowered by 20 to 35 percent.

On January 6, 1997, NHTSA issued a proposal that any vehicle owner may request to have the air bag (driver side, passenger side, or both) disconnected by a dealer or repair shop provided the owner is given written information describing the consequences of disconnecting the air bag and signs a written consent agreement. This proposal was open for comments until February 5, 1997. NHTSA is now reviewing the comments and will make a final decision on this proposal. If you would like a copy of either the proposal or the final rules, please call our AutoSafety HotLine (800-424-9393) or contact our web site (http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov) and leave your name and address and a copy will be mailed to you.

Finally, NHTSA will issue another proposal concerning the development of smart air bags. More details on this proposal will be available in a couple of months. Please call back to check on the status of that rulemaking.

NHTSA reminds consumers that air bags have saved over 1,750 lives as of February 1997. The agency continues to recommend that everyone be properly restrained and that children ride in the rear seat of the vehicle.


Q21: What is a safety belt pretensioner/tensioner and will it help protect me in a crash?
A: A pretensioner/tensioner is a device which automatically tightens the safety belt in the event of a crash. It is offered only as original equipment on a limited number of vehicles and once it deploys, it must be replaced. If you are interested in purchasing a new vehicle with this device, you should contact your local dealer for information on which vehicles are equipped with it.

Q22: I have a tilt steering wheel. In what position should I place it in order for the air bag to provide the greatest protection with the least chance of injury?
A: A tilt steering wheel should be tilted down so that the air bag will deploy toward the chest and not the head. Pregnant women should make sure the steering wheel is also tilted toward the chest, not the abdomen or the head.

Q23: I have a telescoping steering wheel. In what position should I place it in order for the air bag to provide the greatest protection with the least chance of injury?
A: A telescoping steering wheel should be positioned so that it extends toward the driver as little as possible, ensuring that the air bag has plenty of room to deploy.

Q24: To what address should written questions/comments be submitted?
A: All written comments/questions concerning having an air bag disabled under the current policy should be addressed to the Administrator (NAO-10), NHTSA, 400 Seventh St., SW, Washington, DC 20590.

Q25: I am planning to sell my air bag-equipped vehicle. What disclaimer should I put on the bill of sale to protect myself from injuries which might occur to a subsequent owner?
A: Most used vehicles are sold in "as is" condition and no disclaimers are necessary. However, if you have received permission to disconnect the air bag and have done so, or if the air bag deployed and you have not replaced it, but have replaced the cover such that it appears you have a functioning air bag, you should provide that information on the bill of sale so that a purchaser is not misled into believing that he/she has a functioning air bag. You should consult an attorney for the precise wording.