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Air Bag Update

Auto dealers and repair shops began installing air bag cutoff switches in vehicles on January 19, 1998 for owners completing a four-step application process through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). NHTSA reports that as of October 30, 1999 (latest report at close of publishing) 57,183 authorizations for on-off switches have been processed for 70,275 switches (driver side and/or passenger side). Of these authorizations, 3,226 were in Ohio (1,613 driver side only, 783 passenger side only, 830 driver and passenger side air bags). Actual installations reported in Ohio through October 30, 1999 equalled 60 per million registered vehicles.

There are 45 Ohio auto dealerships and repair shops listed on NHTSA’s Web site as facilities that install air bag on-off switches.

Actions leading to the cutoff switch ruling

NHTSA began issuing warnings in 1991 regarding the potential risk of air bag injuries, especially to young children. In 1993 information was required on car visors and in owners manuals warning drivers to put rear-facing infant seats in the back seats of vehicles equipped with passenger-side air bags. This information was also required on child safety seats.

NHTSA issued final rules on new warning labels in the fall of 1996. The new rules called for highly visible warning labels in all new cars and light trucks by early 1997. The labels contained a clear message stating that an air bag can injure or kill children age 12 and under, that children should always ride in the back seat, and to never put an infant in a rear-facing child safety seat in front of an air bag. These labels are affixed to sun visors. In addition, new vehicles are required to have a warning label affixed to the center of the dashboard at the time of delivery, which may be removed only by the vehicle owner. Similar warning labels also appear on child safety seats.

Federal air bag requirements were phased in over several years. 90% of 1997 model year cars were required to be equipped with air bags, with full compliance beginning with the 1998 model year. Air bags were required in all 1999 model light trucks and vans.

Cutoff switch requirements

The overwhelming majority of American car owners are not candidates for the installation of on-off air bag switches. Most injuries are preventable if drivers and passengers buckle up, with drivers keeping at least 10 inches away from the steering wheel and front seat passengers pushing their seat back as far as possible.

NHTSA approves air bag on-off switches on a case-by-case basis. For additional information on air bag cutoff switches, go to

Liability issue

According to NHTSA, all vehicle manufacturers who produce on-off switches agreed to indemnify their dealers for all causes of action other than negligence. Manufacturers can provide the specifics of indemnification. In any case, the switch installer may require a vehicle owner to sign a waiver that releases the business from liability if a switch is installed. In addition not all installers work on all makes and models. For example, a Ford dealership may limit on-off switch installation to Ford vehicles only.

Occupant protection standards

NHTSA passed regulations upgrading occupant protection standards. These standards also require more comprehensive crash test procedures. The rule follows a Congressional mandate to improve protection offered by air bags while minimizing the potential to cause harm upon deployment.

The strength of the new standards is that they require minimum levels of protection for unbelted and belted occupants in high-speed crashes while reducing the risk of air bag-induced injury and injury to out-of-position occupants (predominantly unbelted).

NHTSA also has undertaken an aggressive research program to improve air bag technology. Advanced air bag technology includes concepts such as recessed mounting, lighter air bag covers, lighter weight fabrics, and sensors to detect the weight of an occupant.

On May 12, 2000, NHTSA published a final rule that amended Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection, to require that future air bags be designed to create less risk of serious air bag-induced injuries than current air bags and to provide improved frontal crash protection for all occupants through advanced air bag technology.

During the first stage phase-in (September 1, 2003–August 31, 2006), increasing percentages of motor vehicles will be required to meet requirements for minimizing air bag risks. This will be met primarily by either a sensor that automatically turns off an air bag in the presence of a young child or deploying it in a manner much less likely to cause serious or fatal injury to an out-of-position occupant. 

During the second stage (September 1, 2007–August 31, 2010) higher speed crash tests that employ the use of varied-sized dummies will be phased-in, simulating higher speed crashes in order to develop safer, more effective air bags. Starting in 2007, an increasing percentage of all new vehicles will be required to pass the rigid barrier crash test with belted male dummies at 35 mph instead of 30 mph. This part of the standard will be fully implemented by 2010. Additional information on the new standard is available on NHTSA’s Web site ( or from IIHS’ June 17, 2000 “Status Report,” available online at

Air bag effectiveness

The fact remains that air bags save lives. The chart below outlines the latest statistics at close of publishing. Most air bag-related fatalities are due to driver or passenger error, meaning that the occupant was not buckled or improperly restrained.

In some cases the occupant was out-of-position such as sitting on the lap of another passenger.

Air bag risk is minimal when a driver sits 10–12 inches from the steering wheel. Short-statured drivers should explore options such as pedal extenders that allow them to sit farther back. Contact the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association for information at 1-800-833-0427.  

Side air bags

Side impact air bags provide significant safety benefits to adults in side impact crashes.  More and more car manufacturers are offering them as standard or optional equipment. Some cars and larger SUVs are being equipped with inflatable curtains designed to protect rear-seat occupants’ heads.

According to a recent J.D. Power survey of 50,000 people, 34% said they “definitely want” side air bags, up from 18% in 1997. Another J.D. Power survey reveals that side air bags top the list of 19 vehicle features that respondents said they wanted.

For a list of vehicles with side impact air bag head protection systems, go to

Air Bag Statistics (As of February 2004)
  • Over 146 million (67%) of the more than 218 million cars and light trucks on US roads have driver air bags. Over 124 million (57.3%) of these also have passenger air bags. Another 1 million new vehicles with air bags are sold each month.

  • Deaths in frontal crashes are reduced about 26% among drivers using safety belts and about 32% among drivers without belts.

  • Deaths in frontal crashes are reduced about 14% among right front passengers using their belts and about 23% among passengers without belts. However, deaths are about 34% higher than expected among child passengers younger than 10.

  • More than 13,967 people are alive today because of their air bags (7,585 reported in December 2001), according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

  • NHTSA estimates that the combination of an air bag plus a lap/shoulder belt reduces the risk of serious head injury by 85%, compared with a 60% reduction for belts alone.

  • Since 1990, 238 deaths reportedly have been caused by air bags inflating in low severity crashes. The fatalities include 83 drivers, 11 adult passengers, 121 children and 23 infants.

  • Of the 121 children killed by passenger air bags, 91 are believed to have been unrestrained, 25 were improperly restrained and 5 were restrained.

  • Of the 83 drivers killed by air bags (21 males, 62 females), 53 are believed to have been unbelted, 23 were belted and 4 misused their seatbelts. Belt use is unknown for the other drivers.

  • Of the 23 infants killed by air bags, 12 are believed to have been restrained in rear-facing infant seats; 4 were in rear-facing restraints on laps; 5 were not properly secured in rear-facing restraints and in 2 cases restraint use was unknown.

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Updates available at: