Road Rules: Disabling the airbag?


Question: I have been concerned about this for years: I am just 5 feet tall and weigh 110 pounds. When driving I need the seat moved forward quite a bit to reach the pedals. Can I, or should I, disconnect the airbag? But then my husband, on the rare times he uses my car, would be at risk. Waiting for your wise advice. Thank you.

Answer: You’ve probably seen the letters “SRS” embossed on the steering wheel and in front of the passenger seat on the dashboard. In a round-about way, those three letters explain why you probably don’t need to be concerned about injury from your airbag. Is it possible to get injured from an airbag? Yes, but probably not because
you’re short.

The airbag was invented in 1919 by a couple of dentists who were trying to prevent jaw fractures. They both served at a hospital during World War I treating war victims with severe jaw injuries. Realizing that many of these injuries were caused by vehicle crashes (both planes and road-traveling vehicles), they sought a solution to preventing the injuries.

Given the technology limitations of 1919, the dentists’ airbag design was nothing like what we have now. Airbag innovation progressed in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s, Ford and General Motors deployed them on a limited basis. By the late ’70s both had abandoned the idea, thinking it wasn’t viable. Turns out they were wrong. In the mid ’80s, airbags made a return in a few cars and by 1998 they were mandatory in all cars.

Back to those three letters: “SRS” stands for Supplemental Restraint System. As you might guess from the name, airbags are not intended to be your primary safety device in a crash; that’s your seatbelt. It’s true that airbags have caused some fatalities. However, over 80 percent of those deaths involved a vehicle occupant who was unbelted or improperly belted. (Ninety percent of those fatalities occurred in vehicles manufactured before 1998. That’s when federal rules reduced the power in airbags).

Airbags are designed to work in harmony with a seatbelt to reduce injuries that your seatbelt can’t prevent, not as a stand-alone safety feature. Most airbag injuries and fatalities that involve a driver too close to the airbag come not from sitting too close, but from not wearing a seatbelt and then moving too close during the crash.

If you always wear your seatbelt, the risk from your airbag is minuscule compared to the advantages it offers in a crash. In fact, airbags save thousands of lives every year and reduce serious injuries that seatbelts alone can’t prevent. However, the law does allow for a few scenarios where you would be allowed to disable an airbag, and one is related to your seating position.

There is such a thing as too close, and it might be closer than you were expecting. The first 2 to 3 inches of airbag deployment are the “risk zone.” Beyond that, risk of injury diminishes rapidly. The recommended minimum distance between the steering wheel and the driver in an airbag-equipped car is 10 inches. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) figures that in most vehicles a driver who is 4'6" or taller should be able to position the driver’s seat to get 10 inches between their chest and the steering wheel.

The other driver exception is a medical condition that “makes the potential harm from the driver air bag … greater than … allowing the driver, even if belted, to hit the steering wheel, dashboard, or windshield in a crash.” I don’t know what medical condition fits those parameters, but it’s an option for anyone whose doctor thinks they need it.

On the passenger side, an airbag can be disabled if transporting an infant or child and the back seat isn’t an option (usually because there is no back seat, like in a pickup or two-seater sports car).

The back seat, if there is one, is always the safer place for kids to ride, but putting an infant in a rear-facing car seat in the front seat of an airbag equipped car is extra-disastrous in a crash.

To legally disable an airbag, you need to submit a written request to NHTSA and, if approved, the work has to be done by an authorized dealer or shop. They’ll install an on-off switch so that the airbag can be enabled whenever the vehicle occupant doesn’t meet the requirements for deactivation.

Doug Dahl is a manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Region 11 and publishes



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