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Now that car owners can apply for permission to have an on-off switch installed on a vehicle’s air bag, most people believe the controversy is over. Far from it. Car owners remain stuck in the middle of differences between government, repair shops, insurers, car makers, and lawyers.

Certifying that an
owner has a condition
meeting all the
requirements for
a switch is
a serious matter.
The authorization process
The request form to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) certifies that the owner has read a special information brochure; that the vehicle owner or user is in one of four risk groups; and which air bags the on-off switch is to control. Upon approval, the owner receives an authorization allowing a repair shop to install the switch in that vehicle. The shop must return part of the form to NHTSA after completing the work. This procedure applies to individuals leasing vehicles as well as to those owning them.
      Certifying that an owner has a condition meeting all the requirements for a switch is a serious matter. The NHTSA form, when signed, becomes a legal affidavit. False statements are punishable under federal laws.
      The switch must be key-operated and display a yellow indicator, visible to all the front-seat occupants, that’s illuminated whenever the air bag is turned off. There’s no restriction on which company manufactures switches so long as they meet specifications.
      Since the beginning of the program in mid-December, 1997 through mid-March, 1998, NHTSA has approved about 23,000 requests for switches. This is a rate of 92,000 per year. Liz Neblett, NHTSA spokeswoman, says it’s too early to tell if the current rate of requests will continue. NHTSA’s original estimate was for 100,000 requests the first year, and 80,000 in succeeding years.

Risk groups
NHTSA has identified four risk groups for air bag fatalities. Individuals in only two of these groups definitely will be better off if the air bag can be turned off: infants in rear-facing infant safety seats who must ride in the front seat, and drivers or front-seat passengers who’ve been advised by a physician that an air bag puts them at unusual risk because of a medical or physical condition. Even someone in this second category should not turn off an air bag unless the same physician thinks that results from a crash’s injury will be worse with the bag operating than if it is turned off.
      Medical conditions alone don’t create unusual risks, unless the condition prevents a person from sitting at least 10 inches away from the panel covering the air bag. Such common medical conditions as pacemakers, angina, emphysema, previous back surgery, osteoporosis, and arthritis don’t routinely justify turning off the air bag, according to a national conference of physicians NHTSA consulted.
      Individuals in two other groups may, in some cases, be better off using an air bag on-off switch: drivers who cannot sit at least 10 inches back from the center of the steering wheel, and children aged one to 12. Even a child of this age is not at risk in the front seat--if he or she is properly belted, does not lean forward, and the seat is positioned all the way back. You can avoid these risks entirely by putting the child in a rear seat.
      Very few drivers are unable to sit at least 10 inches away from the center of the steering wheel. Those who cannot remain this distance from the steering wheel usually are women less than 4 feet 6 inches in height. Women who must sit at a distance of slightly less than 10 inches still are unlikely to be injured by the air bag. The 10-inch distance includes a two-inch safety margin. NHTSA reports that drivers underestimate their distance from the steering wheel, so measuring is important.
      Today's cars have many adjustments: the seat’s fore-and-aft position and height, and angle of the seatback and the steering wheel. Some steering wheels also have a telescoping fore-aft adjustment, too. These multiple adjustments are especially important to drivers of short stature.
      So what’s the controversy?
  • Car owners are having trouble locating a shop willing to do the work.
  • Shops are concerned about liability if someone is injured while using a switch incorrectly.
  • Insurance companies want to eliminate air bag discounts when an owner installs an on-off switch.
  • Some car manufacturers are not supplying switches.
  • Switch installation is more expensive than NHTSA estimated during rule-making.

      Common medical
      conditions do not
      routinely justify
      turning off the air bag.


NHTSA rules
do not require
a repair shop
to install an
on-off switch.
Repair shop issues
NHTSA rules do not require a repair shop to install an on-off switch for an owner having an authorization form. Shops may require additional proof of identity from the person presenting the letter for installation. Shops also are able to set their own conditions for switch installation, including requiring you to sign a liability waiver for the shop.
      A survey by AAA, Heathrow, Fla., of 700 new-car dealerships in 29 states showed only 16% of them said they plan to install switches. Another 62% were unwilling to perform the work, and 22% were undecided. Shops willing to install switches estimate installation cost at about $240 and requiring about two hours. NHTSA had estimated the cost at $38 to $63 and less than one hour of time.
      Mark Edwards, AAA’s managing director of traffic safety, sums up the situation: "It will take patience and research for motorists to find a shop in their area willing to install the switches." Owners may want to consider shopping for a shop before completing the authorization process. The search could be frustrating enough to discourage any but the most persistent.
      Air Bag Options Inc., a Texas company, offers universal air bag on-off switches, and, it will come to a city near you to install them. Cost of the switch and installation is $279. No, the company doesn’t make a special trip just for you. You have to wait until there are enough customers in your area to justify the trip. Plans are under way to franchise the business locally in the future. More information is on its Web site.

Manufacturer concerns
Manufacturers are not rushing to supply switches. For example, Mercedes-Benz is making them only for the 1990-1995 SL two-seaters’ passenger air bag to allow individuals to use child safety seats, according to spokesman Jim Koscs. As for its sedans, Koscs says, "Our dealers have been successful, so far, in convincing owners they are better off with the air bags operating than without them."
      The concern of auto makers about on-off switches is that the air bag is an integral part of each vehicle’s crash protection system. The key word is system, "an orchestra of occupant protection," as Mercedes literature puts it. Take away one part of the system, and the remaining parts--safety belts, collapsible steering column, interior padding, body structure--have to do more work than the engineers intended.
      NHTSA’s own figures say fatalities from air bag deployment are very rare: Only about one in 20,000 deployments results in a fatality from the air bag itself. That’s 0.005%--five thousandths of one percent--of all deployments. The risk of dying from fire in an auto crash is 2.5 times greater (one in 7,850). Another perspective: According to the National Center of Health Statistics, you are 340 times more likely to die of pneumonia and influenza than to die from an air bag injury.
      Each vehicle’s
      crash protection system
      is "an orchestra
      of occupant protection."

The risk of dying
from fire in
an auto crash is
2.5 times greater
than from an
air bag fatality.

Insurance concerns
The National Association of Independent Insurers (NAII), Des Plaines, Ill., has petitioned NHTSA to notify insurance companies when owners modify their air bag systems. "The final rule [permitting air bag deactivation] will make it difficult to reward policyholders who own ... air bag-equipped ... models," says Terry Tyrpin, vice president of NAII Insurance and Research Services.
      For those wanting to take on the challenge, all AAA local offices have the NHTSA forms and information brochure. NHTSA also offers them two ways: on its Web site or through its Auto Safety Hotline at (888) 327-4236 or (800) 424-9393.
      Four important steps for anyone thinking about an air bag on-off switch are:
  1. Educate yourself about the pros and cons of using an air bag switch.
  2. Be sure that a better seating position won’t solve the problem for you.
  3. Find a shop willing to do the work.
  4. Check that the needed parts are available for your car.
      Do all this before you sign and send in the form to NHTSA, and you'll be more likely to make the best decision.

Columnist John Fobian is an automotive writer and engineer.

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