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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Authorizes Switch to Turn Off Car Airbags

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. federal government has announced a new rule that would let millions of car owners get toggle switches to shut off their airbags, but officials said the change could cost more lives than it saves.

If the switches are used only by the small number of people at risk -- people with a very limited number of medical conditions and people who must have children in the front seat -- then the rule change could avert 55 deaths a year between 1998 and 2001, according to the U.S. Transportation Department. But if drivers rush to install the switches, hundreds could die in crashes where an airbag would have saved them, officials said after the Tuesday ruling.

"We could wash out the benefits,'' said Philip Recht, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In formally announcing Tuesday that some people would be allowed to have mechanics disable the airbags on either the passenger or driver's side beginning in January, transportation officials repeatedly emphasized that few people should take advantage of the policy change because airbags are generally safe.

So in tandem with the new rule, Recht and others began a public education campaign designed to emphasize how more people could avoid risk -- by putting children in the back seat or by readjusting the driver's seat to keep a minimum of 10 inches between the steering column where the airbag is stored and the driver's breastbone.

Some surveys conducted by the insurance industry indicate that millions of car owners would like to install the switches, after data showed that 87 people, many of them children, died in crashes so minor that investigators concluded airbags had killed them.

Car owners have always been permitted to disable the bags themselves, but the new rule gives auto repair shops and mechanics permission to install the switches, once the government issues permits to the car owners.

Government officials would not predict Tuesday how many people would take advantage of the new rule. But some private safety experts said the number was in the hundreds of thousands at most, not millions.

The rule change, according to the Transportation Department, was essential because airbags were becoming unacceptable to the public.

Some insurance company executives said Tuesday that they would begin gathering data on what they paid out in claims and liability suits in cars with the new toggle switches. They said that if evidence is found that the switches raise the risk of injury or danger, they would consider whether insurance rates should be increased on cars with such switches. Some companies have already dropped airbag discounts on vehicles like pickup trucks that already have the switches.

Officials said they hoped the cost of the switches would discourage their installation. The highway safety agency estimated a switch for one bag would cost $38 to $63 and said Ford estimated that a switch for both driver and passenger bags would cost $95 to $124.