1460 South Macon Street
Aurora, CO 80012
Dear Mr. Gifford:
This responds to your letter concerning air bags. I apologize for the delay in our response. You stated that you are considering the purchase of a new car with air bags, and that it is your "intent to remove them for safety reasons." You asked whether the dealer can legally remove the air bags, or whether you would need to do it yourself. As discussed below, Federal law prohibits dealers from disconnecting air bags, but does not prohibit an owner from disconnecting his or her air bag.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is authorized under 49 U.S.C. Chapter 301 to issue safety standards for new motor vehicles and new motor vehicle equipment, specifies requirements for the protection of vehicle occupants in crashes. (Standard No. 208) Safety belts and air bags are installed as means of complying with that standard.
One provision of Federal law also forbids a vehicle dealer or other commercial entity to remove or deactivate safety equipment, such as air bags, installed in compliance with a Federal motor vehicle safety standard. Title 49 U.S.C., section 30122, provides:
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.
As air bags are installed to comply with Standard 208, a dealer (or other commercial entity) may not make it "inoperative."
This prohibition does not apply to modifications made by persons to their own vehicles. Such modifications may, however, be covered by State laws. Regardless of legal considerations, we discourage persons from attempting to deactivate an air bag on general safety grounds, and especially if they do not have expertise concerning how to do it safely.
You state that you and your wife use your seat belts at all times, and that is the most important way persons can protect themselves while driving. Safety belts keep you in place so that your head, face, and chest are less likely to strike the steering wheel, windshield, dashboard, or the vehicle's interior frame, and they prevent you and other occupants from being thrown into each other or ejected from the vehicle.
However, we are concerned that you wish to disconnect your air bags. The combination of wearing safety belts and having an air bag provides vehicle occupants with maximum safety protection. An air bag provides supplemental protection for a person during a frontal crash, distributing crash loads over a much wider area of a person's body.
While air bags have an impressive overall performance record, particularly in reducing fatalities, NHTSA is aware that current air bag designs can have adverse effects. These adverse effects have included serious injuries and even some fatalities to occupants in very close proximity to the air bag at time of deployment. I have enclosed a copy of a notice, published by NHTSA in November 1995, which discusses situations where these adverse effects may occur.
While you have obviously paid a great deal of attention to the trade-offs presented by air bags, we urge you to consider the following data before removing your air bags. Air bags have been and continue to be an effective, life-saving technology. Numerous evaluations of their effectiveness have been conducted. All conclude that air bags are approximately 30 percent effective in reducing fatalities in pure frontal crashes. Looking at all crashes, air bags reduce fatalities by about 10 percent. The available data also indicate that air bags reduce the likelihood of injury to an occupant's head, neck, face, chest, and abdomen, injuries which are particularly likely to be life threatening.
I hope this information is helpful. If you have any other questions, please feel free to contact Edward Glancy of my staff at this address or by phone at (202) 366-2992.
Samuel J. Dubbin Chief Counsel
Enclosure ref:vsa d:5/16/96