DOT HS 808 629



Air bags are proven, effective safety devices. From their introduction in the late 1980's through November 1, 1997, air bags saved about 2,620 people. The number of people saved increases each year as air bags become more common on America's roads.

However, the number of lives saved is not the whole story. Air bags are particularly effective in preventing life-threatening and debilitating head and chest injuries. A study of real-world crashes conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that 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. That means 75 of every 100 people who would have suffered a serious head injury in a crash, and 66 out of 100 people who would have suffered chest injuries, were spared that fate because they wore seat belts and had air bags.

For some people, these life saving and injury-preventing benefits come at the cost of a less severe injury caused by the air bag itself. Most air bag injuries are minor cuts, bruises, or abrasions and are far less serious than the skull fractures and brain injuries that air bags prevent. However, 87 people have been killed by air bags as of November 1, 1997. These deaths are tragic, but rare events -- there have been about 1,800,000 air bag deployments as of that same date.

The one fact that is common to all who died is NOT their height, weight, sex, or age. Rather, it is the fact that they were too close to the air bag when it started to deploy. For some, this occurred because they were sitting too close to the air bag. More often this occurred because they were not restrained by seat belts or child safety seats and were thrown forward during pre-crash braking.

The vast majority of people can avoid being too close and can minimize the risk of serious air bag injury by making simple changes in behavior. Shorter drivers can adjust their seating position. Front seat adult passengers can sit a safe distance from their air bag. Infants and children 12 and under should sit in the back seat. And everyone can buckle up. The limited number of people who may not be able to make these changes may benefit from having the opportunity to turn off their air bags when necessary.

Beginning January 19, 1998, consumers can choose to have an on-off switch installed for the air bags in their vehicle if they are, or a user of their vehicle is, in a risk group listed below. The following information provides the facts you need about air bags so you can make the appropriate decision for you and anyone else who is in a risk group.

What is an on-off switch?

An on-off switch allows an air bag to be turned on and off. The on-off switch can be installed for the driver, passenger, or both. To limit misuse, a key must be used to operate the on-off switch. When the air bag is turned off, a light comes on. There is a message on or near the light saying "DRIVER AIR BAG OFF" or "PASSENGER AIR BAG OFF." The air bag will remain off until the key is used to turn it back on.

What steps can you take to reduce air bag risk without buying an on-off switch?

  • Always place an infant in a rear-facing infant seat in the back seat.
  • Always transport children 1 to 12 years old in the back seat and use appropriate child restraints.
  • Always buckle your seat belt.
  • Keep 10 inches between the center of the air bag cover and your breastbone.

The vast majority of people don't need an on-off switch. Almost everyone over age 12 is much safer with air bags than without them. This includes short people, tall people, older people, pregnant women -- in fact, all people, male or female, who buckle their seat belts and who can sit far enough back from their air bag. Ideally, you should sit with at least 10 inches between the center of your breastbone and the cover of your air bag. The nearer you can come to achieving the 10-inch distance, the lower your risk of being injured by the air bag and the higher your chance of being saved by the air bag. If you can get back almost 10 inches, the air bag will still help you in a crash.

Who should consider installing an on-off switch?
  • People who must transport infants riding in rear-facing infant seats in the front passenger seat.
  • People who must transport children ages 1 to 12 in the front passenger seat.
  • Drivers who cannot change their customary driving position and keep 10 inches between the center of the steering wheel and the center of their breastbone.
  • People whose doctors say that, due to their medical condition, the air bag poses a special risk that outweighs the risk of hitting their head, neck or chest in a crash if the air bag is turned off.

If you cannot certify that you are, or any user of your vehicle is, in one of these groups, you are not eligible for an on-off switch. Turning off your air bag will not benefit you or the other users of your vehicle. Instead, it will increase the risk that you and the other users will suffer a head, neck or chest injury by violently striking the steering wheel or dashboard in a moderate to severe crash.


How do air bag deaths occur?

Air bags are designed to save lives and prevent injuries by cushioning occupants as they move forward in a front-end crash. By providing a cushion, an air bag keeps the occupant's head, neck, and chest from hitting the steering wheel or dashboard. To perform well, an air bag must deploy quickly and forcefully. The force is greatest in the first 2-3 inches after the air bag bursts through its cover and begins to inflate. Those 2-3 inches are the "risk zone." The force decreases as the air bag inflates farther.

Occupants who are very close to or on top of the air bag when it begins to inflate can be hit with enough force to suffer serious injury or death. However, occupants who are properly restrained and sit 10 inches away from the air bag cover will contact the air bag only after it has completely or almost completely inflated. The air bag then will cushion and protect them from hitting the hard surfaces in the vehicle.

Do both children and adults face risk?

Yes, both children and adults face the risk of air bag injury or death if they are positioned too close to the air bag or fail to use proper restraints. As of November 1, 1997, NHTSA has confirmed that 49 young children have died, all on the passenger side. 38 adults have died -- 35 drivers and 3 passengers.

What were the specific circumstances of the children's deaths?

Almost all of the 49 children who died were improperly restrained or positioned. 12 were infants under age 1 who were riding in rear-facing infant seats in front of the passenger air bag. When placed in the front seat, a rear-facing infant seat places an infant's head within a very few inches of the passenger air bag. In this position, an infant is almost certain to be injured if the air bag deploys. Rear-facing infant seats must ALWAYS be placed in the back seat.

The other 37 children ranged in age from 1 to 9 years; most were 7 or under. Twenty nine of them were totally unrestrained. This includes 4 children who were sitting on the laps of other occupants. The remaining 8 children included some who were riding with their shoulder belts behind them and some who were wearing lap and shoulder belts, but who also should have been in booster seats because of their small size and weight. Booster seat use could have improved shoulder belt fit and performance. These various factors allowed the 37 children to get too close to the air bag when it began to inflate.

What were the specific circumstances of the adults' deaths?

Most of the adults who were killed by air bags were not properly restrained. Eighteen of the 35 drivers, and 2 of the 3 passengers, were totally unbelted. Two of the drivers who were belted had medical conditions which caused them to slump over the steering wheel immediately before the crash. A few of the drivers did not use their seat belts correctly and the others are believed to have been sitting too close to the steering wheel.


Visit the NHTSA Web site at http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov and click on the icon "AIR BAGS - Information about air bags." A video shows crash tests of properly belted dummies whose air bags are turned off. A properly belted short female dummy without an air bag is shown slamming her head hard enough to bend the steering wheel and suffer fatal injuries. For more information, call the NHTSA Hotline at 1-800-424-9393.


What is the safest way to ride in front of an air bag?

First, move the seat back and buckle up -- every time, every trip. The lap belt needs to fit over your hips, not your abdomen, and the shoulder belt should lie on your chest and over your shoulder. Remove any slack from the belt. In a crash, seat belts stretch and slow down your movement toward the steering wheel or dashboard. Moving back and properly using seat belts give the air bag a chance to inflate before you move forward in a crash far enough to contact the air bag.

How do I best protect children?

Never place a rear-facing infant seat in the front seat if the air bag is turned on. Always secure a rear-facing seat in the back seat. Children age 12 and under should ride in the back seat. While almost all of the children killed by an air bag were 7 years old or younger, a few older children have been killed. Accordingly, age 12 is recommended to provide a margin of safety.

There are instances when children must sit in the front, because the vehicle has no rear seat, there are too many children for all to ride in back, or a child has a medical condition that requires monitoring. If children must sit in the front seat, they should use the seat belts and/or child restraint appropriate for their weight or size (see the table at the end of this brochure) and sit against the back of the vehicle seat. The vehicle seat should be moved as far back from the air bag as practical. Make sure the child's shoulder belt stays on. If adult seat belts do not fit properly, use a booster seat. Also, children must never ride on the laps of others.

What should teenagers and adults do to be safest on the passenger side?

Always wear seat belts. This reduces the distance that they can move forward during a crash. Move the seat toward the rear. The distance between a passenger's chest and the dashboard where the air bag is stored is usually more than 10 inches, even with the passenger seat all the way forward. But more distance is safer.









How do I stay safe when I'm driving?

Since the risk zone for driver air bags is the first 2-3 inches of inflation, placing yourself 10 inches from your driver air bag provides you with a clear margin of safety. This distance is measured from the center of the steering wheel to your breastbone. If you now sit less than 10 inches away, you can change your driving position in several ways:

  • Move your seat to the rear as far as you can while still reaching the pedals comfortably.
  • Slightly recline the back of the seat. Although vehicle designs vary, many drivers can achieve the 10-inch distance, even with the driver seat all the way forward, simply by reclining the back of the seat somewhat. If reclining the back of your seat makes it hard to see the road, raise yourself by using a firm, non-slippery cushion, or raise the seat if your vehicle has that feature.
  • If your steering wheel is adjustable, tilt it downward. This points the air bag toward your chest instead of your head and neck.

[In its published version, the brochure will be 10 inches tall and will indicate that it should be placed between your breastbone and the center of the air bag cover to check your distance.]

Unbelted and too close
Use Seat Belts
Move Seat Rearward Recline Back of Seat
Tilt Wheel Down Correct
Belted and 10 inches or more away

Will following these safety tips guarantee that I will be safe in a crash?

There is no guarantee of safety in a crash, with or without an air bag. However, most of the people killed by air bags would not have been seriously injured if they had followed these safety tips.


Are air bags the reason the back seat is the safest place for children?

No. The back seat has always been safer, even before there were air bags. NHTSA conducted a study of children who died in crashes in the front and back seats of vehicles, very few of which had passenger air bags. The study concluded that placing children in the back reduces the risk of death in a crash by 27 percent, whether or not a child is restrained.


C A U T I O N : If you allow children to ride in the front seat while unrestrained or improperly restrained, and especially if you sit with a child on your lap, you are putting them at serious risk, with or without an air bag. Turning off the air bag is not the safe answer. It would eliminate air bag risk but not the likelihood that in a crash an unrestrained child would fly through the air and strike the dashboard or windshield, or be crushed by your body.
Vehicle owners and lessees can obtain an on-off switch for one or both of their air bags only if they can certify that they are, or a user of their vehicle is, in one of the four risk groups listed below:

Two risk groups have a high enough risk that they would definitely be better off with an on-off switch:

A national conference of physicians considered all medical conditions commonly cited as possible justifications for turning off air bags. The physicians did not recommend turning off air bags for persons with pacemakers, supplemental oxygen, eyeglasses, median sternotomy, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, asthma, breast reconstruction, mastectomy, scoliosis (if the person can be positioned properly), previous back or neck surgery, previous facial reconstructive surgery or facial injury, hyperacusis, tinnitus, advanced age, osteogenesis imperfecta, osteoporosis & arthritis (if the person can sit at a safe distance from the air bag), previous ophthalmologic surgery, Down syndrome and atlantoaxial instability (if the person can reliably sit properly aligned), or pregnancy. The physicians recommended turning off an air bag if a safe sitting distance or position cannot be maintained by a driver because of scoliosis or achondroplasiaor by a passenger because of scoliosis or Down syndrome and atlantoaxial instability. The physicians also noted that a passenger air bag might have to be turned off if an infant or child has a medical condition and must ride in front so that he or she can be monitored. To obtain a copy of the recommendations, call the NHTSA Hotline or see the NHTSA Web site.


Two other risk groups may be better off with an air bag on-off switch:

  • Children ages 1 to 12. Children in this age group can be transported safely in the front seat if they are properly belted, they do not lean forward, and their seat is moved all the way back. The vast majority of all fatally injured children in this age range were completely unrestrained. But children sometimes sit or lean far forward and may slip out of their shoulder belts, putting themselves at risk. The simple act of leaning far forward to change the radio station can momentarily place even a belted child in danger. If a vehicle owner must transport a child in the front seat, the owner is eligible for an on-off switch for the passenger air bag. Since air bag performance differs from vehicle model to vehicle model, the vehicle owner may wish to consult the vehicle manufacturer for additional advice.

  • Drivers who cannot get back 10 inches. Very few drivers are unable to sit so that their breastbone is 10 inches away from their air bag. If, despite your best efforts, you cannot maintain a distance of 10 inches, you may wish to consult your dealer or vehicle manufacturer for advice or modifications to help you move back.

Since the risk zone is the first 2-3 inches from the air bag cover, sitting back 10 inches provides a clear margin of safety. While getting back at least 10 inches is desirable, if you can get back almost 10 inches, the air bag is unlikely to seriously injure you in a crash and you probably don't need an on-off switch. If you cannot get back almost 10 inches from the air bag cover, you may wish to consider an on-off switch. Since air bag performance differs among vehicle models, you may wish to consult your vehicle manufacturer for additional advice.

What if you are, or a user of your vehicle is, not in one of the listed risk groups?

You are not at risk and do not need an on-off switch. This includes short people, tall people, older people, pregnant women -- in fact, all people, male or female over age 12, who buckle their seat belts and who can sit with 10 inches from the center of their breastbone to where the air bag is stored. You will have the full benefit of your air bag and will minimize the risk of violently striking the steering wheel and dashboard in a moderate to severe crash.

How do I get an on-off switch?

If you are eligible, you must fill out a NHTSA request form. Forms are available at state motor vehicle offices and may be available at automobile dealers and repair shops. You may also get one by calling the NHTSA Hotline or visiting the NHTSA Web site. On the form, you must indicate which air bags you want equipped with an on-off switch, certify that you have read this information brochure, certify that you are, or a user of your vehicle is, a member of a risk group listed above, and identify the group. Then send this form to NHTSA. Upon approval of your request, the agency will send you a letter authorizing an automobile dealer or repair shop to install an on-off switch in your vehicle.

Should a pregnant woman get an on-off switch?

No, not unless she is a member of a risk group. Pregnant women should follow the same advice as other adults: buckle up and stay back from the air bag. The lap belt should be positioned low on the abdomen, below the fetus, with the shoulder belt worn normally. Pull any slack out of the belt. Just as for everyone else, the greatest danger to a pregnant woman comes from slamming her head, neck or chest on the steering wheel in a crash. When crashes occur, the fetus can be injured by striking the lower rim of the steering wheel or from crash forces concentrated in the area where a seat belt crosses the mother's abdomen. By helping to restrain the upper chest, the seat belt will keep a pregnant woman as far as possible from the steering wheel. The air bag will spread out the crash forces that would otherwise be concentrated by the seat belt.



If I turn off my air bag for someone at risk, what precautions should I take for others?

Since the air bag will not automatically turn itself back on after you turn it off with an on-off switch, you must remember to turn it on when someone who is not at risk is sitting in that seat. Every on-off switch has a light to remind you when the air bag is turned off.

If I turn off my air bag, will my seat belts provide enough protection?

Air bags increase the protection you can get from seat belts alone. If the air bag is turned off, you lose this extra protection.

In some newer vehicles, turning off your air bag may have additional consequences. These vehicles have seat belts that were specially designed to work together with air bags. If the crash forces become too great, these new seat belts "give" or yield to avoid concentrating too much force on your chest. The air bag prevents you from moving too far forward after the seat belts give. Without the air bag to cushion this forward movement, the chance of the occupant hitting the vehicle interior is increased.

Ask your vehicle manufacturer whether your seat belts were specially designed to work with an air bag. If they were, your dealer or repair shop will provide you information about the effects that turning off your air bag will have on the performance of the belts. Ask your dealer or repair shop to show you this information before you decide whether to have an on-off switch installed.



Air bags are designed to keep your head, neck, and chest from slamming into the dash, steering wheel or windshield in a front-end crash. They are not designed to inflate in rear-end or rollover crashes or in most side crashes. Generally, air bags are designed to deploy in crashes that are equivalent to a vehicle crashing into a solid wall at 8-14 mph. Air bags most often deploy when a vehicle collides with another vehicle or with a solid object like a tree.

Air bags inflate when a sensor detects a front-end crash. The sensor sends an electric signal to start a chemical reaction that inflates the air bag with harmless nitrogen gas. All this happens faster than the blink of an eye. Air bags have vents, so they deflate immediately after cushioning you. They cannot smother you

and they don't restrict your movement. The "smoke" you may have seen in a vehicle after an air bag demonstration is the nontoxic starch or talc that is used to lubricate the air bag.

Are all air bags the same?

No. Air bags differ in design and performance. There are differences in the crash speeds that trigger air bag deployment, the speed and force of deployment, the size and shape of air bags, and the manner in which they unfold and inflate. That is why you should contact your vehicle manufacturer if you want specific information about the air bags in your particular car or truck.



Do I need an on-off switch if I buy a vehicle with depowered air bags?

Many manufacturers are installing depowered air bags beginning with their model year 1998 vehicles. They are called "depowered" because they deploy with less force than current air bags. They will reduce the risk of air bag-related injuries. However, even with depowered air bags, rear-facing child seats still should never be placed in the front seat and children are still safest in the back seat. Contact your vehicle manufacturer for further information.

Will on-off switches be necessary in the future?

Manufacturers are actively developing so-called "smart" or "advanced" air bags that may be able to tailor deployment based on crash severity, occupant size and position, or seat belt use. These bags should eliminate the risks produced by current air bag designs. It is likely that vehicle manufacturers will introduce some form of advanced air bags over the next few years.

Weight or size of your child Proper type of restraint
(Put your child in back seat, if possible)

Children less than 20 pounds,* or less than 1 year


Rear-facing infant seat
(secured to the vehicle by the seat belts)


Children from about 20 to 40 pounds* and at least 1 year


Forward-facing child seat
(secured to the vehicle by the seat belts)


Children more than 40 pounds*


Booster seat, plus both portions of a lap/shoulder belt
(except only the lap portion is used with some booster seats equipped with front shield)


Children who meet both criteria below:

  1. Their sitting height is high enough so that they can, without the aid of a booster seat, wear the shoulder belt comfortably across their shoulder, and secure the lap belt across their pelvis, and

  2. Their legs are long enough to bend over the front of the seat when their backs are against the vehicle seat back

Both portions of a lap/shoulder belt

* To determine whether a particular restraint is appropriate for your child, see restraint manufacturer's recommendations concerning the weight of children who may safely use the restraint.