Air Bags -- Update on On/Off Switches

March 1998

Beginning this year, consumers in certain risk categories have been "allowed" to ask the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for permission to have on/off switches installed for air bags in their vehicles. However, even armed with their permission papers, some people have found that they can't get the switches installed because of dealers' fear that they would be sued down the line.

According to NHTSA's guidelines, consumers who might be at risk from air bag deployment because of medical problems, the inability to sit more than 10 inches away from the steering wheel, or the need to put a child in the front seat could send in a form to the agency asking for permission to have the vehicles retrofitted with on/off switches. Over 18,000 people so far have been granted permission.

Yet, according to a survey by the American Automobile Association, six out of 10 auto dealerships said they wouldn't install the switches, and two out of 10 hadn't made a decision on the question. Their fears probably arise from the uncertainty of whether a person seriously or fatally hurt in an accident involving the car might sue because the air bag was not turned on.

Just recently two of the big three automakers -- General Motors and Ford -- announced that they would take on the liability if their dealerships get sued because they installed the switches. Their actions should help overcome some of the dealer reluctance and allow more consumers to get their switches installed.

Frances B. Smith is executive director of Consumer Alert, a Washington-based consumer group.

Consumer Safety

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