DOT Spells Out New Rules On Air Bag Cutoff Switches
By Warren Brown and Cindy Skrzycki
The automobile passive restraint isn't necessarily passive any more.
The Department of Transportation issued a final rule yesterday allowing vehicle owners to install switches in their cars and trucks to turn their air bags off or on.
Owners will have to seek government authorization to install the switches. But Transportation officials conceded that this would be a pro forma exercise, designed to give the government a chance to inform consumers about the benefits of air bags and the dangers of turning them off.
"This is a practical solution that allows you to turn off the air bag for someone at risk, and turn it back on to preserve the lifesaving benefits for everyone else," said Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater. "We have made a difficult decision. Now it is the public's turn to make their decision."
It is expected that the government will honor almost all properly filed requests for the switches, Slater said.
Viewed one way, the freedom of choice that the new rule gives to consumers undermines the notion of passive protection, meaning no action is required on the part of the vehicle occupant.
But supporters of the change say it puts major responsibility for auto safety where it belongs in the hands of vehicle owners.
The government is betting that few consumers will take advantage of the option, which is a compromise meant to placate people who feel endangered by air bags, which inflate at high speeds, and those who feel that more harm could be done by disabling the devices.
Under the new rule, vehicle owners must make a personal claim that they are in at least one of the four "at-risk" groups the government has identified: Those who must put infants in the front seat; have a medical condition; cannot get back farther than 10 inches from the steering wheel; or those who must run car pools that require a child under the age of 12 to ride in the front seat.
The agency said it will consider requests starting Dec. 18, and most dealers will begin installations a month later. When car owners receive their authorization letters from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, they can go to a dealer or repair shop and have the switch installed. The dealer must then notify the government in writing that the work has been done. Dealers also can ask consumers to sign a liability waiver, absolving the service agency from any liability involved with installing the switch.
Carmakers are expected to install key-operated air bag switches. There will be a yellow warning light emblazoned with the words "air bag off" when the switch is in the off position. General Motors Corp. plans to put some of the switches in the glove compartment of its passenger cars and on the dashboard in its trucks. Ford Motor Co. said switches will be available on its most popular models such as the Taurus and Contour cars.