DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
49 CFR Parts 571 and 595
[Docket No. NHTSA-97-3111]
RIN 2127 - AG61
Air Bag On-Off SwitchesDownload the rule in Word Perfect format
AGENCY: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Department of Transportation (DOT).
ACTION: Final rule; denial of petition for reconsideration.
SUMMARY: This final rule seeks to preserve the benefits of air bags, while providing a means for reducing the risk of serious or fatal injury that current air bags pose to identifiable groups of people, e.g., people who cannot avoid sitting extremely close to air bags, people with certain medical conditions, and young children. The benefits are substantial; current air bags had saved about 2,620 drivers and passengers, as of November 1, 1997. However, those air bags had also caused the death of 87 people in low speed crashes, as of that same date. Most of those people were unbelted or improperly belted. Although vehicle manufacturers are beginning to replace current air bags with new air bags having some advanced attributes, i.e., attributes that will automatically avoid the risks created by current air bags, an interim solution is needed now for those groups of people at risk from current air bags in existing vehicles.
This final rule exempts motor vehicle dealers and repair businesses from the statutory prohibition against making federally-required safety equipment inoperative so that, beginning January 19, 1998, they may install retrofit manual on-off switches for air bags in vehicles owned by or used by persons whose requests for switches have been approved by the agency. While the administrative process necessary to provide prior approval is more complex than the process proposed by the agency in January 1997 for enabling vehicle owners to obtain switches, prior approval is warranted by several considerations. The requirement for prior approval of requests for switches emphasizes to vehicle owners the importance of taking the safety consequences of a decision to seek and use on-off switches very seriously. While some people need and will be benefited by on-off switches, the vast majority of people will not be. Further, checking the requests for switches is more appropriately performed by the agency than by the dealers and repair businesses who will install the switches. Finally, prior approval will enable the agency to monitor directly, from the very beginning, the implementation of the regulation and the effectiveness of its regulation and the associated educational materials in promoting informed decisionmaking about on-off switches.
Under the exemption, vehicle owners can request an on-off switch by filling out an agency request form and submitting the form to the agency. On the form, owners must certify that they have read an information brochure discussing air bag safety and risks. The brochure describes the steps that the vast majority of people can take to minimize the risk of serious injuries from air bags while preserving the benefits of air bags, without going to the expense of buying an on-off switch. The brochure was developed by the agency to enable owners to determine whether they are, or a user of their vehicle is, in one of the groups of people at risk of a serious air bag injury and to make a careful, informed decision about requesting an on-off switch. Owners must also certify that they or another user of their vehicle is a member of one or the risk groups. Since the risk groups for drivers are different from those for passengers, a separate certification must be made on an agency request form for each air bag to be equipped with an on-off switch.
If NHTSA approves a request, the agency will send the owner a letter authorizing the installation of one or more on-off switches in the owner's vehicle. The owner may give the authorization letter to any dealer or repair business, which may then install an on-off switch for the driver or passenger air bag or both, as approved by the agency. The on-off switch must meet certain criteria, such as being equipped with a telltale light to alert vehicle occupants when an air bag has been turned off. The dealer or repair business must then fill in information about itself and its installation in a form in the letter and return the form to the agency.
This final rule also denies a petition for reconsideration of the agency's January 1997 decision in a separate rulemaking not to extend the option for installing original equipment manufacturer on-off switches for passenger air bags to all new vehicles equipped with air bags. As a result of that decision, the option continues to apply only to those new vehicles lacking a rear seat capable of accommodating a rear-facing infant restraint.
Effective Date: Part 595 is effective December 18, 1997. The agency will begin processing air bag on-off switch requests on that same date. If a form is submitted before December 18, it will be given the same priority as a form submitted after that date. Accordingly, there will be no advantage to submitting forms early. Motor vehicle dealers and repair businesses may begin installing switches on January 19, 1998.
The amendments to Part 571 are effective January 19, 1998. Compliance with those requirements is optional before that date.
Petitions: Petitions for reconsideration must be received by (insert date 45 days after publication in the Federal Register).
ADDRESSES: Petitions for reconsideration should refer to the docket number of this rule and be submitted to: Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 400 Seventh Street, SW, Washington, DC 20590.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:
For information about air bags and related rulemaking: For additional information, call the NHTSA Hotline at 1-800-424-9393; in the D.C. area, call 202-366-0123. In addition, visit the NHTSA Web site at http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/airbags/. Among the available materials are descriptions of the procedures for requesting authorization to obtain an on-off switch and a list of questions and answers about air bags and on-off switches. There are also crash videos showing what happens in a crash to a belted, short-statured dummy whose driver air bag is turned off.
Table of Contents
I. Executive Summary of this Final Rule
A. Final Rule.
This final rule seeks to preserve the benefits of air bags, while providing a means for reducing the risks that some current air bag designs pose to discrete groups of people due to their extreme proximity to air bags. This final rule exempts motor vehicle dealers and repair businesses from the statutory prohibition against making federally-required safety equipment inoperative so that, beginning January 19, 1998, they may install, subject to certain conditions, retrofit manual on-off switches for the air bags of vehicle owners whose request is approved by NHTSA. To obtain approval, vehicle owners must submit a request form to NHTSA on which they have certified that they have read an agency information brochure about air bag benefits and risks and that they or a user of their vehicle is a member of one of the risk groups identified by the agency. The agency will begin processing and granting requests on December 18, 1997.
Air bags have saved the lives of about 2,620 drivers and passengers, primarily in moderate and high speed crashes, as of November 1, 1997. However, air bags have also caused fatal injuries, primarily in relatively low speed crashes, to a small but growing number of children, and on rare occasion to adults. These deaths were not random. They occurred when people were too close to their air bag when it began to inflate. The vast majority of these fatalities could have been avoided by preventive steps such as using seat belts, moving the front seats back as much as possible, and putting children in the back seat. Nevertheless, a relatively small number of people may still be at risk, even after taking these steps, because they will be more likely than the general population to be too close to their air bags. Although advanced air bags are the ultimate answer and manufacturers are beginning to install air bags with some advanced attributes, an interim solution is needed for those identifiable groups of persons for whom current air bags in existing vehicles may pose a risk of serious or fatal injury.(1)
Under the exemption, vehicle owners(2) may request a retrofit on-off switch, based on informed decisionmaking and their certification of their membership or the membership of another user of their vehicle in one of the risk groups identified by the agency. After reading the agency information brochure, owners can fill out and sign an agency request form and submit it to NHTSA. The information brochure, which provides guidance about which groups of people may be at risk from air bags and about appropriate use of on-off switches, is intended to inform consumers about which people are at risk from air bags and to promote informed decisionmaking by consumers about whether to request an on-off switch for those persons. To increase the likelihood that the decisions are, in fact, informed, owners requesting a retrofit on-off switch must certify on the request form that they have read the information brochure. To limit the availability of on-off switches to persons at risk of serious air bag injury, the owners must also certify that they or a user of their vehicle is a member of one or more of the risk groups described on the information brochure and listed on the request form. The particular risk group in which membership is claimed must be identified. Since the risk groups for driver air bags are different from those for passenger air bags, a separate certification must be made for each air bag to be equipped with an on-off switch.
To reinforce the importance of taking great care in accurately certifying risk group membership, the agency is requiring owners to submit their requests to the agency. The agency expects that owners will accurately and honestly make the necessary certifications and statements on their request forms, but reserves the right to investigate. The prior approval procedure will also enable the agency to monitor, from the very beginning, the volume of requests and patterns in switch requests and risk group certifications. The computerization of the process of preparing authorization letters will minimize the time needed by the agency to process and respond to the requests. The precise amount of time will depend in large measure on the volume of requests.
The agency strongly urges caution in obtaining and using on-off switches. As noted above, on-off switches are not needed for the vast majority of people since they are not at risk. Most people can take steps that will eliminate or significantly reduce their risk without turning off their air bag and losing its protective value. If they take those steps, they will be safer than if they did not take those steps and simply turned off their air bag. The most important steps are using seat belts and other restraints and moving back from the air bag. More important, people who are not at risk will be less safe if they turn off their air bag.
This exemption is subject to certain conditions to promote the safe and careful use of on-off switches. For example, the on-off switches installed pursuant to this exemption must meet certain performance criteria, such as being operable by a key and being accompanied by a telltale to alert vehicle occupants whether the air bag is "on" or "off." In addition, to provide a reminder about the proper use of on-off switches, vehicle dealers and repair businesses must give vehicle owners an owner's manual insert describing the operation of the on-off switch, listing the risk groups, stating that the on-off switch should be used to turn off an air bag for risk group members only, and stating the vehicle specific safety consequences of using the on-off switch for a person who is not in any risk group. Those consequences will include the effect of any energy managing features, e.g., load limiters, on seat belt performance.
In response to comments indicating that the definition of "advanced air bag" was too vague and that dealers could not reasonably ascertain whether a vehicle was equipped with such air bags, the agency has deferred adoption of that aspect of its proposal which would have prohibited installation of on-off switches for advanced air bags. NHTSA expects to adopt such a prohibition after it develops a more complete definition of "advanced air bags" that applies to driver as well as passenger air bags. This deferral should have no practical significance. Although the vehicle manufacturers are beginning to introduce air bags with advanced attributes, the agency does not expect the installation of significant numbers of advanced air bags before it is ready to establish a better definition.
The agency has selected January 19, 1998, as the beginning date for the installation of retrofit on-off switches under this rule. This date allows time for completion of the design, production and distribution of on-off switches and the training of installation personnel. It also allows time for the public education campaign of the agency and other interested parties (e.g., the Air Bag Safety Campaign (ABSC),(3) American Automobile Association (AAA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), motor vehicle dealers, and state motor vehicle departments) to effectively reach a substantial percentage of the public before the installation of on-off switches begins. Until on-off switches become available from the vehicle manufacturer for a given vehicle make and model, NHTSA will continue to exercise its prosecutorial discretion to grant requests for deactivating the air bags in that make and model. In view of the relative inflexibility and permanence of deactivation, the discretion will be exercised on a case-by-case basis in the same limited set of circumstances in which the requests are currently granted, e.g., in cases in which unusual medical conditions suggest that deactivation is appropriate, and in cases in which infants must be carried in the front seat of vehicles lacking a rear seat capable of accommodating a rear-facing infant seat.
B. Comparison of NPRM and Final Rule.
The final rule being issued today follows, in several important respects, the agency's January 1997 proposal. Most important, the rule makes a means of turning off air bags available to vehicle owners. It simplifies the current process of obtaining a means of turning off air bags. Instead of having to compose an original request letter and type or write the letter out in longhand, as they must to obtain authorization from the agency for deactivation, vehicle owners will be able to fill out an agency request form. To promote informed decisionmaking, this rule requires owners to certify on the request form that they have read an air bag information brochure prepared by NHTSA so that owners can separate fact from fiction about who is really at risk and therefore may need an on-off switch.
However, the final rule differs from the proposal in several other important respects. First, the sole means authorized for turning off air bags is a retrofit on-off switch. Deactivation (i.e., modifying the air bag so that it will not deploy for anyone under any circumstance) is not allowed under the exemption. Although the agency recognized in January 1997 that retrofit on-off switches offered some advantages, the agency proposed deactivation because the apparent unavailability of retrofit on-off switches in the near term made them impracticable. When the deactivation proposal was issued, there were indications from the vehicle manufacturers that they would not be able to provide retrofit on-off switches for existing vehicles in a timely manner. Subsequent to the January 1997 proposal, a number of major vehicle manufacturers began reassessing the practicability of on-off switches and making statements to the agency and the media that they were able to provide retrofit on-off switches for existing vehicles, and for future vehicles. The change to on-off switches in this final rule will enhance safety because the on-off switches are a more focused, flexible means of turning off air bags. They enable consumers to leave air bags on for people who are not at risk and thus will benefit from their protection, and turn them off for people at risk.
Second, vehicle owners must certify that they are a member of one of several specified risk groups or that their vehicle will be driven or occupied by a person who is a member of such a group. The agency proposed to allow any person to choose to have his or her air bags deactivated, without having to demonstrate or state a particular safety need. Under the proposal, applicants would simply have had to fill out an agency form on which they indicated that they had received and read an information brochure explaining the safety consequences of having an air bag deactivated. For the final rule, the agency has devised a new form on which owners desiring an on-off switch for either a driver or passenger air bag not only must certify that they have read the brochure, but also that they or one of the users of their vehicle fall into an identifiable risk group for that air bag. Use of the revised form will help provide reasonable assurance that the exemption is implemented in a manner consistent with safety.
Third, the agency is requiring owners to submit their filled-out forms to the agency for approval. Together with the requirement for certification of risk group membership, the necessity for obtaining agency approval will help limit the installation and use of on-off switches to people who are at risk from air bags and give the agency information about the volume of requests and patterns in switch requests and risk group certifications.
1. An advanced air bag senses or responds to differences in crash severity, occupant size or the distance of the occupant from the air bag at the time of a crash. The advanced air bag adjusts its performance by suppressing deployment in circumstances in which fatalities might otherwise be caused by the air bag, but not by the force of the crash, or by reducing the force of deployment in those circumstances.
2. This final rule applies to leased as well as owned vehicles. See part VIII.G.8 of this preamble. For the sake of simplicity, however, most references in this preamble are to owners only. Those references should be deemed to include lessees as well as owners.
3. The ABSC represents all automobile manufacturers (domestic and importers), air bag suppliers, many motor vehicle insurance companies and the National Safety Council.
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