Actions leading to the cutoff switch ruling
NHTSA began issuing warnings in 1991 regarding the potential risk of airbag 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 airbags. 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 airbag 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 airbag. These labels are affixed to both sides of 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 prominently on child safety seats.
Federal airbag requirements were phased in over several years. 90% of 1997 model year cars were required to be equipped with airbags, with full compliance beginning with the 1998 model year. Airbags were also required in all 1999 model light trucks and vans. Due to market demand, most automakers exceeded the timetable.
Cutoff switch requirements
The overwhelming majority of Americans and their families should not be affected by the ruling regarding the installation of on-off airbag 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 airbag on-off switches on a case-by-case basis. The process and application form are available on NHTSAs website, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
Some repair businesses and auto dealerships have expressed reluctance to install these switches due to potential liability. According to NHTSA, all vehicle manufacturers who are producing on-off switches have agreed to indemnify their dealers for all causes of action other than negligence. Manufacturers will be able to 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 instance, a Ford dealership may limit on-off switch installation to Ford vehicles only.
As of November 10, 2000 there were 57 Ohio auto dealerships and repair shops listed on NHTSAs website (www.nhtsa.dot.gov) as facilities that install airbag on-off switches.
New occupant protection standards
After consideration for almost two years, NHTSA passed regulations that upgrade occupant protection standards and require more comprehensive crash test procedures. The new rule follows a Congressional mandate to improve protection offered by airbags while minimizing the potential to cause harm upon deployment.
Crash tests will now require the use of dummies representing ages one, three and five, as well as small-statured females.
The strength of the new standard is that it will require minimum levels of protection for unbelted and belted occupants in high-speed crashes while reducing the risk of airbag-induced injury and injury to out-of-position occupants (predominantly unbelted). The new standards do not guarantee that occupants will remain injury-free when airbags inflate. Airbag warning labels affixed to sun visors and dashboards will convey this message.
Advanced airbags meeting the new standard will be required starting with 2004 model vehicles. Automakers will be required to certify an increasing percentage of their fleet each year. All new vehicles are to comply with the new airbag standard after August, 2006.
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 is to be fully implemented by 2010. Additional information on the new standard is available on NHTSAs website or download the IIHS June 17, 2000 Status Report that outlines the new standards from www.highwaysafety.org.
The fact remains that airbags save lives. The information below outlines the latest statistics at close of publishing. Most airbag fatalities are due to driver or passenger error, meaning that the occupant was unbuckled, not properly buckled, placed incorrectly in a car seat or, in the case of some child fatalities, a child was sitting on the front passengers lap and was too close to the instrument panel at the time of airbag deployment.
Airbag risk is minimal if a driver can sit 1012 inches from the steering wheel. Short-statured drivers should explore additional options. This may include pedal extenders that allow them to sit farther back. Contact the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association for information at 1-800-833-0427.
The AAA also recommends that drivers hold steering wheels at the 9 and 3 oclock positions, rather than the 10 and 2 positions. The wider hand position reduces the risk of injury to wrists and forearms, or possibly driving them into the face or chest.
(As of October 16, 2000)
Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety