ANNAPOLIS – Just over 100 Maryland residents have won permission from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to have air bag on/off switches installed in their cars beginning Monday.
The new regulations are meant for those who, because of special circumstances, could actually be injured by the air bags, which are credited with saving hundreds of lives since their introduction in the late 1980s.
But highway safety advocates are worried that those taking advantage of the new regulation are not weighing the advantages of air bags.
“We hope that people just don’t rush out and decide they want [an on/off switch],” said Cheryl Campitelli, spokeswoman for the American Automobile Association of the Mid-Atlantic. “The vast majority is safer with the air bags.”
The NHTSA in the past granted permission for some drivers to totally disconnect their air bags, and may continue to do so in cars for which on/off switches are not available.
Motorists who want to install the on/off switches must certify that they read literature describing “risk trade-offs” that accompanies the request form. They are also supposed to meet one of four criteria:
-They are not able to move their car seat 10 inches away from the air bag or farther.
-They have a medical condition that puts them at risk.
-They cannot avoid placing rear-facing infant seats in the front passenger seat.
-They cannot avoid situations, such as a car pool, that require a child age 12 or under to ride in the front seat.
As with the risk trade-off brochure, the NHTSA does not verify whether or not any of the four problems exist.
“When they pick up the form, hopefully people will read the literature and comply with the situations,” Campitelli said.
NHTSA spokeswoman Liz Neblett said the agency is not worried that people will claim to meet the requirements when they do not. “We trust when they say they have a need,” she said.
The NHTSA has mailed 4,591 approval letters to motorists nationwide, authorizing car dealers or repair shops to install on/off switches. In Maryland, 108 motorists had received approval for the switches as of Jan. 9.
By Nov. 1, 1997, air bag deployments resulted in 87 deaths, with 49 of the victims under age 9. The NHTSA brochure on air bag safety called them “rare events” and said most of the dead were people who sat too close to the air bag or were improperly restrained and thrown forward when the driver hit the brakes.
Campitelli said most people, even shorter people, can sit back 10 inches from air bags.
A switch lets motorists turn air bags on and off with the turn of a key. A light notifies the motorist if air bags are off. They remain off until the key is used to turn it back on.
Neblett said the agency does not expect a rush of people seeking air bag on/off switches. And many auto repair shops contacted for this story said they cannot do the work yet, anyway.
“We don’t have the materials to perform that yet,” said Mark McKewin, service manager at Waldorf Toyota.
Kobey Ruppert, a service consultant at Ken Dixon Automotive in Waldorf, said a “small-framed” woman asked about an air bag on/off switch and others have asked out of concern for their children’s safety. But General Motors has not authorized installation of the switches on its cars, he said.
From their introduction in the late 1980s until Nov. 1, 1997, air bags saved 2,620 people, according to the NHTSA. An agency study of highway crashes said the combination of seat belts and air bags is 75 percent effective in preventing serious head injuries and 66 percent effective in preventing serious chest injuries.
“It’s definitely safer for people to have the air bags,” Campitelli said.
Request forms for air bag on/off switches are available from the NHTSA, the AAA, the Motor Vehicle Administration, repair shops or auto dealers.
Beginning with 1998 model-year cars, some manufacturers will install depowered air bags, which deploy with less force than the current bags. Others are working on air bags that can deploy with varying degrees of force, depending on the severity of a crash.