124 Dormar Drive
North Syracuse, NY 13212-2708
Dear Ms. Kise:
This responds to your letter of November 11, 1994 asking whether the air bag in your 1994 Oldsmobile can be disconnected. You explained that you use oxygen for emphysema and chronic bronchitis and are concerned that your lungs might not be able to tolerate the powder ejected if the air bag deploys in a crash.
Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection, requires that cars be equipped with automatic crash protection at the front outboard seating positions. The air bags in your car were installed as one means of complying with that requirement. The removal or deactivation of one of those air bags by a vehicle dealer is prohibited by a provision of Federal law, 49 U.S.C. '30122. The provision provides that:
A manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business may not knowingly make inoperative any part of a device or element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment in compliance with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard.
However, in limited situations in which a vehicle must be modified to accommodate the needs of a person with a particular disability or a person's special medical needs, NHTSA has in the past stated that it would consider violations of the "make inoperative" prohibition as purely technical ones justified by public need, and that it would not institute enforcement proceedings.
NHTSA has previously stated that chemical and medical tests indicate that an air bag inflation poses no respiratory system hazard, even for persons who are highly susceptible to airborne particles. However, one recent test series of persons with an asthmatic condition revealed that prolonged exposure (20 minutes with the windows rolled up) to the atmosphere inside a vehicle after both the driver and passenger air bags have deployed can induce significant asthmatic reactions in some persons. Please note that these were worst case test conditions unlikely to be found in a real world crash situation.
However, given this test, we would recommend that you consult your doctor to determine whether any significant hazard could result if you were exposed to air bag deployment by-products. I have enclosed a report on this test for you to share with your doctor to assist in this determination. If you and your doctor decide that the risk to you offsets the potentially life-saving benefits of your air bag, and you wished to have your air bag deactivated, we would regard the deactivation a purely technical violation of the "make inoperative" prohibition justified by public need. Accordingly, we would not institute enforcement proceedings against the person who deactivated the air bag. I would recommend that the manufacturer of the vehicle and/or air bag be consulted on the safest way to disconnect the air bag.
I want to add a caution. The purpose of the "make inoperative" prohibition is to ensure, to the degree possible, current and subsequent owners and users of your vehicle are not deprived of the maximum protection afforded by the vehicle as newly manufactured. Accordingly, we urge that the air bag be reactivated prior to selling the vehicle. In addition, I strongly encourage you to ensure that every person in your vehicle always uses his or her safety belt.
I hope that this letter resolves your problem. If you have any other questions, please contact Mary Versailles of my staff at this address or by phone at (202) 366-2992.
Philip R. Recht Chief Counsel
Enclosure d:1/9/95 ref:VSA#208