Air Bag Deactivation


Air bags are proven and effective safety devices. Between 1990 and 2000 inclusive, air bags saved about 300 lives in Canada. The number of lives saved increases each year, as air bags become more common in vehicles on our roads.

However, the number of lives saved is not the whole story. Air bags are particularly effective in preventing life-threatening and debilitating head and chest injuries. A study of real-world crashes conducted by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ( NHTSA ) found that the combination of seat belts and air bags is 75% effective in preventing serious head injuries and 66% effective in preventing serious chest injuries. That means 75 of every 100 people who would have suffered a serious head injury in a crash, and 66 out of 100 people who would have suffered chest injuries, were spared that fate because they wore seat belts and their vehicle had air bags.

For some people, these life saving and injury-preventing benefits come at the cost of a less severe injury caused by the air bag itself. Most air bag injuries are minor cuts, bruises, or abrasions and are far less serious than the skull fractures and brain injuries that air bags prevent. However, eight people have been killed by air bags up until June 1, 2001. These deaths are tragic, but rare events. In Canada in 1999, for instance, there were 153,720 collisions which resulted in 222,275 injuries and 2,969 deaths.

The one fact that is common to all who died as a result of the air bag is NOT their height, weight, sex, or age. Rather, it is the fact that they were too close to the air bag when it started to deploy.

The vast majority of people can avoid being too close to an air bag and can minimize the risk of serious air bag injury by making simple changes in behaviour. Shorter drivers can adjust their driving position. Front-seat adult passengers can sit a safe distance from their air bag. Infants and children age 12 and under should sit in the back seat. And everyone must buckle up. All provinces and territories have legislation that require all occupants of a vehicle to wear seat belts and children to be positioned in appropriate child seats. The limited number of people who cannot make these changes may benefit from having the opportunity to turn off their air bags when necessary.

Consumers can choose to have the air bags in their vehicle deactivated if they are, or a user of their vehicle is, in a risk group. In most cases, air bags will be deactivated through the use of an on-off switch installed by your dealer or other service technician. In some cases, other forms of deactivation will be provided.

The following information provides the facts you need to know about air bags so you can make an informed decision.

Who should consider deactivating their air bags?

  • People who have no option but to transport infants riding in rear-facing infant seats in the front passenger seat.
  • People who have no option but to transport children age 12 and under in the front passenger seat.
  • Drivers who cannot change their customary driving position and keep 25  cm 1 between the center of the steering wheel, where the driver-side air bag is located, and the center of their sternum (breastbone).
  • People whose doctors say that, due to their medical condition, the air bag poses a special risk that outweighs the risk of hitting their head, neck or chest in a crash if the air bag is turned off.

Generally, if you do not meet at least one of these criteria, nor does any user or occupant of your vehicle, then there is no reason for you to even consider the installation of an on-off switch. Turning off your air bag will not benefit you nor the other users of your vehicle. Instead, it will increase the risk that you and the other users will suffer a head, neck or chest injury by violently striking the steering wheel or dashboard in a moderate to severe crash.

What is an on-off switch?

An on-off switch allows an air bag to be turned on and off. The on-off switch can be installed for the driver, passenger, or both. To limit misuse, a key must be used to operate the on-off switch. When the air bag is turned off, a light comes on. There is a message on or near the light saying "DRIVER AIR BAG OFF" or "PASSENGER AIR BAG OFF."

The air bag will remain off until the key is used to turn it back on.

What steps can you take to reduce air bag risk without installing an on-off switch?

  • Always place an infant in a rear-facing infant seat in the back seat.    
  • Always transport children 12 years old and under in the back seat and use appropriate and properly installed child restraints.   
  • Always buckle your seat belt. The law requires it all across Canada.    
  • Keep 25 cm between the center of the air bag cover and the center of your sternum.   

The vast majority of people don't need an on-off switch. Almost everyone age 13 and over is much safer with air bags than without them. This includes short people, tall people, older people and pregnant women - in fact, all people, male or female, who buckle their seat belts and who can sit far enough back from their air bag. Ideally, you should sit with 25  cm between the center of the air bag cover and the center of your sternum. The nearer you can come to achieving the 25- cm distance, the lower your risk of being injured by the air bag and the greater your chance of being saved by the air bag. If you can get back almost 25  cm , the air bag will still help you in a crash.

1 Note that here, and everywhere else where the 25- cm distance is mentioned, the thickness of heavy coats and of other bulky clothing should not be included in the measurement.