Can I disconnect the airbags of my wife's car...for her own good?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | May 01, 1998

Dear Tom and Ray:

I own a 1996 Honda Accord EX. I got married and haven't driven the car since.
She drives the Accord, and I've been banished to her old car, a Chevy Beretta. I
would like to disconnect the air bags on the Accord. My wife likes to sit very
close to the steering wheel. Because of her proximity to the steering wheel and
her small size, I'm concerned about her safety in an accident. What should I do?
-- Scott

RAY: Well, first, you don't want to be an alarmist, Scott. In the latest
statistics we saw, air bags were still saving a great many more people than they
were killing or injuring.

TOM: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA),
there were 37 adults killed by air bags since 1990, and 26 of them were either
not wearing their seatbelts, or not wearing them properly. So only 11 adults who
were properly belted were actually killed by air bags. That's 11 too many, but
it's important to keep things in perspective.

RAY: If you decide to have them disconnected, NHTSA says you must either have a
medical reason for doing so, or you must be unable to sit at least 10 inches
away from the steering wheel when driving. Some people can solve this problem by
simply sitting back further. Others may be able to move further away from the
steering wheel with the help of inexpensive pedal extenders, which move the gas
and brake pedals closer to the driver. You can find a pedal extender provider by
calling the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association at (813) 932-8566.

TOM: If your wife is unable, or unwilling, to sit more than 10 inches from the
steering wheel, then here's what you have to do to get an air bag on-off switch
installed in your car: Get a copy of NHTSA's brochure along with a request form.
They're available at dealerships, state motor vehicle offices, from NHTSA in
Washington, D.C., or on the web at

RAY: Fill out the form and send it to NHTSA. You must certify that you have read
the brochure, you understand the risks and that you (or someone who drives your
car) meets one of the specific risk criteria.

TOM: Then NHTSA will send an approval letter to the owner of the car, who can
then take it to a dealership or service center and have the switch installed.

RAY: Two other things to note: Some dealerships have refused to install the
switches, even to people with NHTSA approval, because they are afraid of the
legal liability for disconnecting an air bag. So you may have to look around to
find someone to do it.

TOM: Also, many cars, as of this year, have new, lower-powered air bags, which
inflate slower and should not present any serious risk to vehicle occupants --
even people sitting less than 10 inches from the wheel. So if you buy a 1998 car
or later, and it has "second generation" airbags, you can forget about this
business altogether.

RAY: That's your best bet, Scott. Dump the Beretta, reclaim your '96 Accord, and
buy your lovely new wife a nice, new 1998 car. Hey, no one ever said marriage
was cheap!

* * *

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