Drivers of pickups with on/off switches for the frontal airbags on the passenger side and with children ages 1 to 12 riding in the front seat are only turning the airbags off about half of the time. This is the main finding of a survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Drivers with infants in rear-facing child restraints turned off the passenger airbags most frequently — about 86 percent of the time. On the other hand, passenger airbags were turned off for about 17 percent of the adult passengers surveyed, affording them no safety benefit from the airbags in the event of a crash.
NHTSA recommends turning off passenger airbags whenever a child 12 or younger rides in the front seat because of the risk of inflation injuries caused by the deploying airbags. Passenger airbags should be turned on whenever someone 13 or older rides in the front passenger seat.
As the number of child deaths from deploying airbags increased during the 1990s, NHTSA began in 1995 to allow automakers to install the switches for passenger airbags in vehicles that wouldn't accommodate a rear-facing child restraint anywhere except in the front passenger seat. As a result, the manufacturers fitted on/off switches into pickup trucks with passenger airbags, beginning with some 1996 models and extending to nearly all models by 1998. Far fewer switches have been installed in other kinds of vehicles without back seats. Manufacturers are allowed to offer switches until 2012.
To find out how people are using the switches, researchers interviewed more than 3,000 drivers of pickup trucks in California, Georgia, Michigan, and Texas. A mix of urban and rural counties were included. The interviews, conducted in 2000, included more than 600 cases where at least one front-seat passenger was a child. Nearly all drivers indicated awareness that their vehicles were equipped with on/off switches, and nearly all (97 percent) knew what position the switch was in at the time of the interview. About two-thirds of the drivers who had used the switches and 35 percent of the drivers who hadn't volunteered that the primary purpose was to protect children.
Passenger airbags were left on about a quarter of the time when children 1 to 6 years old were riding in the front seat. The proportion of airbags left on climbed to as high as three-quarters of the time for children between 7 and 12 years old.
"Apparently some parents aren't familiar with the federal guidelines, or they're simply forgetting to turn the airbags off," says Susan Ferguson, the Institute's senior vice president for research. "Unfortunately, if you give people a choice, sometimes they make the wrong choice."
The airbags in future models will detect when a child is present in the front seat and either suppress deployment automatically or reduce the force of the inflation to lessen the potential for harm. These systems will eliminate the need for on/off switches. In the meantime, NHTSA plans to target drivers of pickups with a public information and education campaign on the correct use of switches.