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A Sensible Solution - the on/off Switch

The government recognizes the danger from airbags, particularly to those in high risk groups. NHTSA has given car manufacturers until September 1, 2007 to get new, "safe", airbags into production. Between 2003 and 2007, these safe airbag systems will be phased in, according to NHTSA's directives.  But there are several big obstacles. 

First, nobody knows exactly what a "safe" airbag will be yet, but there have been efforts to improve their design in the last few years to make them less dangerous. The manufacturers are working on improving these systems, but from all accounts they will be highly complex. For instance, Cadillac has  introduced a passenger sensing system that has 38 separate sensors. And BMW will try to have a system that will sense a driver who leans over to pick up a cigarette and deactivates the airbag. some of the 2001 cars have multi-stage airbags, which added a "low" force detonation circuit in an effort to reduce the detonating force in low impact accidents. But even in 2008, all except the brand new cars will still have old style airbags. 

The first effort to improve airbag design involved using "de-powered airbags”. But, as the following articles show, this has not been the solution.  There have recently been deaths from these as well. Mercedes recalled cars with their latest system ( one of the most advanced control systems in production): one in which a special child’s car-seat turns off the passenger side airbag in their two-seat sports car (the option costs about $1,700) but turns it back on if the weight exceeds 40 pounds.  Multistage airbags are also being used although researchers have published serious doubts about the benefit of the first stage portion, which detonates at lower speeds. Over the next few years, more efforts will probably yield better solutions. New technologies, such as the variable output inflator in combination with improved data input and processing will probably lead to safer airbags. Unfortunately, part of the same law that requires manufacturers to develop safe airbags also will no longer allow airbag switches after 2012. 

By then, the new airbag systems may have been tested in real world conditions for a several years. But, the system needs to function as well twenty years later as it did when it rolled off the assembly line. from 1996 to 2000, more than 3 million cars were recalled for airbag related problems. What about when the systems are many times more complex? In light of the fact that serious, disabling injuries are a very real danger for all people (see Dr Smock's research paper), we believe each person should be able to make their own choice about whether to have airbags. But between now and the date that "safe" airbags are produced and proven, an airbag switch is the only way to have a choice and can be the best way to protect those in the most vulnerable categories. Since the danger of an airbag is much greater if the passenger or driver is close to the airbag, and since most seatbelts will allow the body to move closer to the airbag, especially during the time when a driver brakes prior to crash impact, the problem really exists for all drivers and front seat passengers. If you review the article by Dr Smock, you will see that the danger can be severe for anyone putting their arms or hands in front of an airbag cover (as when bracing for impact). this means new, defensive driving techniques are needed when in front of an active airbag. Crossing an arm over the steering wheel cover while turning or having a hand on the horn prior to impact are especially dangerous and can result in amputation or severe, multiple fractures.

Recently, research published in the American Journal of Public Health (Oct 2000, Vol. 90, No 90 by leading researcher Dr. Maria Segui-Gomez) has shown that on average, when considering severe injuries to women, an airbag only has a net protective effect where crash impact speeds exceed 62.2 KPH (about 39 MPH). For all drivers on average, this speed is about 23 MPH, probably because on average, men sit farther away from the airbag. The biggest danger is to those who sit closer to the airbag or end up near it when the airbag detonates. An airbag is designed to detonate at crash impact speeds of as little as 8 mph, and on average 21 to 28 KPH (13 to 17.5 mph). If airbags were designed for women drivers, the average crash impact speed (or delta V at which the airbag detonates) would be set at about 39 MPH. To accommodate smaller or larger drivers, who have to sit closer to the steering wheel, the crash impact speed should be set even higher.  Today, the latest rulemaking proposal by NHTSA addresses the issue of airbags more directly and requires car makers to come up with new occupant protection systems (including airbags) that will meet a criteria that addresses the needs of groups that are especially in danger today. This includes children, "small statured" adults and those with medical reasons that make the danger of a detonating airbag especially critical. There is a link below to the rule itself, but in general, once a manufacturer believes they have an airbag system that will meet the new criteria, they can apply for certification from NHTSA. Once test results are submitted, and they comply with these new requirements, they will qualify for the NHTSA definition of an Advanced Airbag. So far (2002) no manufacturer has yet claimed to meet these new standards for occupant protection and the deadline for their development has been extended from 2006 to 2012. 

As of October 30,1999, the federal government had approved 70,275 on/off switches for airbags, but only 11,195 had actually been installed. The problem has been that it is very difficult to find anyone qualified and willing to install them. It’s even harder to find someone who is willing to do airbag switch installations, who will accept the liability, and who also has experience and is technically qualified.

NHTSA’s website lists installers in each state but most will not install switches at all, and those that will , usually install them only in certain models.

Sensible Solutions has a national network of airbag switch installers that installs both manufacturer-produced switches as well as universal switches that meet all NHTSA requirements. We can provide airbag switches that fit driver or passenger airbags of virtually all passenger vehicles made today.

For more information, let us hear from you.

Links to Other Websites:

Airbag Syndrome  a site that addresses the hazards of airbag chemicals 

The current rule proposed by NHTSA for development of "Advanced Airbags". There is an Executive Summary. and some of the parts immediately after b. Causes of Air Bag Fatalities" are especially interesting.

The Airbag Switch Company Website

Science Serving Society  Dr. Leonard Evans' Website  (fascinating- preeminent auto safety   research scientist)

Vehicle Recalls: Has Your vehicle been recalled?The NHTSA database on recalls. As of 1999, over 3 million cars had been recalled because of airbag-related problems. The database now lets you search for your particular vehicle, but the total number of vehicles is no longer shown. 

National Motorists Association Website