15 Fairview Knoll N.E.
Iowa City, Iowa 52240-9147
Dear Dr. Arnold:
This responds to your letter asking whether the air bags in your car can be disconnected. You explained that you are physically impaired by the effects of osteomyelitis, a disease of the bones; cannot use a seatbelt with comfort; and were Agranted dispensation from such usage several years ago.@ In a telephone conversation with Richard Reed of this agency, you indicated that you are 74 years old, 5 feet, three inches tall, and must sit close to the steering wheel because of your medical condition.
As explained below, our answer is that NHTSA will not institute enforcement proceedings against a repair business that disconnects an air bag on your vehicle to accommodate your condition.
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 governed by a provision of Federal law, 49 U.S.C. '30122. The section 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.
I would like to caution you that both safety belts and air bags are very important items of safety equipment. Safety belts are the primary means of occupant restraint, and work in all types of crashes. NHTSA estimates that in 1994, safety belts saved almost 9,200 lives and prevented more than 211,000 moderate to critical injuries. The combination of wearing safety belts and having an air bag installed at a seating position provides vehicle occupants with maximum safety protection in all types of crashes. Also, air bags are designed to offer some protection even when safety belts are not used. Since 1987, air bags are estimated to have saved 911 lives.
NHTSA strongly encourages vehicle occupants to wear their safety belts, since we are concerned about the much higher safety risk faced by unbelted occupants. We understand, however, that you cannot wear your safety belt for medical reasons, and that you are concerned about a possible safety risk from the air bag in such a situation.
While air bags have an impressive overall performance record and are designed to provide some protection even for unbelted occupants, NHTSA has become aware of situations in which current air bags have undesired side effects. These include situations in which an air bag appears to have contributed to serious injuries and even death to vehicle occupants, in minor-to-moderate severity crashes. Information indicates that an air bag might pose a risk of serious injury to unrestrained small statured and/or older people, in particular. I note that NHTSA has recently issued a request for comments (copy enclosed) concerning the agency=s actions to minimize the adverse side effects of air bags and to invite the public to share information and views with the agency.
Since your disability prevents you from wearing your safety belt, and given your age and size, the disability places you in a situation where there may be a risk of serious injury from the air bag. While this particular risk can be addressed by disconnecting the air bag, there are trade-offs: Disconnecting the air bag subjects you to a higher risk in crashes, especially higher-speed crashes, where the air bag would provide protection. We urge you to carefully weigh the trade-offs in making your decision.
If you decide that the risk to you from the air bag offsets the potentially life-saving benefits of the air bag, and you wish 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 any person listed in section 30122 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 also note that the air bag should only be disconnected from a position where you would be seated. In addition, I strongly encourage you to ensure that every person in your vehicle who can use his or her safety belt does so.
I want to add a caution. The purpose of the "make inoperative" prohibition is to ensure, to the greatest 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, if you were to sell your vehicle later, we urge that the air bag be reactivated for the subsequent driver.
I hope that this letter resolves your problem. If you have any other questions, please contact Edward Glancy of my staff at this address or by phone at (202) 366- 2992.
Samuel J. Dubbin Chief Counsel