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There are a few states in the country that have some of the highest traffic-related fatalities. So, practicing car safety is important to avoid serious injury or death. Automobiles have seat belts and airbags to help prevent fatalities and injuries when car accidents occur. However, some drivers want their airbags removed from the vehicle. Is it legal to do so? Let’s look at the reasons for having them disabled and how to have them turned off legally.

Why is airbag technology important in a vehicle?

In a vehicle collision, whether with a tree, another car, or a large object, your seat belt is your first line of defense because it prevents you from getting ejected from the vehicle. For added protection, frontal airbags for the driver and the passenger will deploy to help prevent severe injuries to the upper body, especially the head and neck area. 

Frontal airbags have been standard in cars since 1998 and SUVs and trucks since 1999 due to NHTSA regulations. Other airbags, like side-impact ones, are sometimes included as standard on some vehicles but are generally an optional feature you can add to your purchase. 

According to the NHTSA website, over 50,000 lives have been saved from 1987 to 2017 since manufacturers started implementing them in their vehicles. In 2017 alone, 2,790 drivers and passengers (over the age of 13) were saved from fatalities, so we know they work well. 

Why would you want to turn off airbags in your vehicle, and how can you do that legally?

A deployed car airbag from an accident seen in Krakow, Poland
A deployed car airbag | Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

To legally disable an airbag in a car, you must seek authorization from the NHTSA. The organization allows you to turn off one or more airbags in your car, provided you meet specific requirements. The situations where it’s permitted include:

1. Children that must sit in the front seat

Pickups often have no back seat for infants and young children to sit in. In these cases, they must be placed in the front passenger space, which would typically put them at risk due to the passenger airbag. If no other vehicle is available to use, you could get by with turning off the airbag. 

2. Drivers that must sit close to the steering wheel

The NHTSA recommends that drivers sit at least 10 inches away from the steering wheel to avoid injury from the airbag should it deploy. Occasionally, a person cannot meet that requirement due to unavoidable circumstances like their short stature. In this case, it’s usually permissible to have the airbag deactivated or turned off by installing a switch. 

3. Medical condition exceptions

Sometimes, a doctor will request a driver seek deactivation of the airbag due to a person’s medical condition. If it’s determined that the risks from the medical condition outweigh the benefits of having the airbag, the NHTSA may allow the disabling of the safety feature. 

To legally have the airbags deactivated or have a turn-off switch installed, you need to fill out a form from the NHTSA website showing the need for it. If the organization approves your request, they will send an authorization letter, which you will take to an approved mechanic or dealership service department to complete the task. Most mechanics will not perform the required repair without that letter.

How the Takata airbag recall affected consumer confidence

The Takata airbag recall has been one of the biggest stories in the automotive industry in the last decade. The saga began in November 2008 when a few airbags discharged shrapnel after being deployed. Then, in May 2009, the first death was recorded of a teen struck with sharp pieces of metal from an airbag and died. 

Since then, 19 other deaths and 250 injuries are also believed to have been caused by the same Takata safety bags. As many as 19 or so manufacturers have used them in about 63 million vehicles in several years. Since then, many cars, SUVs, and trucks have had them replaced, but there are reportedly still hundreds more vehicles out there that still have the Takata bags. 

Drivers are understandably cautious about airbags in general, not just the ones made by Takata because they don’t know if the same occurrence will happen with the shrapnel if their airbags deploy. It’s no wonder some people are more interested in having these safety parts disabled or removed rather than risk something happening. 

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