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Air Bag Deactivation: The Air Bag On-Off Decision



The air bag on-off switch decision.

Vehicle owners and lessees may consider obtaining an on-off switch for one or both of their air bags but it is unsafe to deactivate an air bag unless they are, or another user of their vehicle is, in one of the four risk groups listed below:

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

  • Infants in rear-facing infant seats. A rear-facing infant seat must never be placed in the front passenger seat unless the air bag is turned off.
  • Drivers or passengers with unusual medical conditions. These are people who have been informed by a physician that an air bag poses a special risk to them because of their condition. However, they should not turn off their air bag unless their physician also has informed them that the risk of having the air bag is greater than the risk posed by not having an air bag. Without an air bag, even belted occupants could hit their head, neck or chest in a crash.

In the U.S., a national conference of physicians considered all medical conditions commonly cited as possible justifications for turning off air bags. In general, the physicians recommend NOT turning off air bags for persons with:

  • pacemakers
  • supplemental oxygen
  • eyeglasses
  • median sternotomy
  • angina
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • 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
  • hyperacusa, 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)
  • pregnancy

The physicians did recommend turning off an air bag if a safe sitting distance or position cannot be maintained by a driver because of:

  • scoliosis or
  • achondroplasia

or 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 by the driver.

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) has been provided with the report of the U.S. National Conference on Medical Indications for Air Bag Disconnection.

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

  • Children age 12 and under. 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. 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 or lessee has no option but to transport a child age 12 or under in the front seat, the owner or lessee should consider the use of an on-off switch for the passenger air bag. Since air bag performance differs from vehicle model to vehicle model, the vehicle owner or lessee should consult the vehicle manufacturer for additional information.
CAUTION: 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.
  • Drivers who cannot get back 25 cm. Very few drivers are unable to sit so that their sternum is 25 cm away from their air bag. If, despite your best efforts, you cannot maintain a distance of 25 cm, you may wish to consult your vehicle manufacturer for information to help you move back.

Since the risk zone is the first 8 cm from the air bag cover, sitting back 25 cm provides a clear margin of safety. While getting back a minimum of 25 cm is desirable, if you can get back almost 25 cm, 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 25 cm 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 information.



What if you, or another 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 and pregnant women -- in fact, all people, male or female age 13 and over, who buckle their seat belts and who can sit with a distance of 25 cm from the center of their sternum to the center of the air bag cover. 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.



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 and over the pelvic bone, 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 baby can be injured by striking the lower rim of the steering wheel or dashboard or from crash forces concentrated in the area where a seat belt crosses the mother¹s 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. 



How do I get an air bag on-off switch?

If you are, or another driver or passenger of your vehicle is, at serious risk, complete the Declaration of Requirement for Air Bag Deactivation Form. On the form, you must indicate which air bag(s) you want equipped with an on-off switch and if the switch is not being installed for you, indicate for whom it is being installed. You must also certify that you have read this information brochure, certify that you are, or another user of your vehicle is, a member of a risk group listed above, and identify the group. If an air bag is deactivated by means other than that of an on-off switch, you must accept either to reactivate the air bag or to inform the subsequent purchaser of the vehicle when it is sold or the owner of the vehicle when it is returned. After you have completed the form, mail it to Transport Canada where it will be verified for completeness and logged. Transport Canada will keep the original form and will send you a stamped copy if it was properly completed. Improperly completed forms will be returned unprocessed. You may take the stamped copy to a dealer or other service technician for the installation of an on-off switch.

It is possible that on-off switches may not be available for a particular make and model of vehicle. In that case, your manufacturer or other service technician may provide you with another means of deactivation.

After the work on your vehicle has been carried out, your dealer or other service technician is required to send the declaration form to Transport Canada's Motor Vehicle Safety Directorate.

It should be noted that dealers or other service technicians are not obligated to install on-off switches or otherwise deactivate air bags and that any work performed on the vehicle will be done at the owner's or lessee's expense. It is also possible that a dealer or other service technician will require that the owner or lessee sign a waiver of liability.

If a vehicle is leased, the lessee should contact the owner before proceeding to have the vehicle's air bag(s) deactivated.