Specific Needs 

This section is for those drivers and passengers who may be concerned about an increased risk of an air bag-related injury due to their size, age or medical condition.

 

Small-stature & Elderly Adults

It has generally been found to be safe, and will continue to be safe, for smaller adults and elderly people to be seated in front of an air bag as long as they are properly belted, maintain a proper seating position and move the seat as far back as possible.

Drivers concerned about achieving the recommended 10-inch distance between the air bag cover in the steering wheel and the driver's breastbone should:

  • Ensure they are properly belted,
  • Maintain a proper seating position,
  • Move the seat as far back as possible while still comfortably reaching the pedals,
  • Recline the back of the seat slightly, and
  • Tilt the steering wheel downward, if it is adjustable. (Tilting the steering wheel downward points the air bag toward the breastbone instead of the head and neck.)

Those who still cannot get far enough away from the steering wheel should ask their vehicle manufacturer about the availability of pedal extenders. If the above does not work and a driver still cannot comfortably achieve the 10-inch distance, an air bag ON-OFF switch may be considered. With the introduction of advanced air bags beginning in the 2004 model year, much of the risk of an air bag-related injury is minimized and an ON-OFF switch may not be necessary.

Pregnant Women

The combination of safety belts and air bags offers the best level of protection to pregnant women, as long as they follow the same advice as other adults: ensure they are properly belted, maintain a proper seating position and move the seat as far back as possible.

The lap belt should be positioned low on the abdomen, below the fetus, with the shoulder belt worn normally. When crashes occur, the fetus can be injured by striking the lower rim of the steering wheel or from crash forces concentrated in the area where a seat belt crosses the mother's abdomen. The seat belt will keep a pregnant woman as far as possible from the steering wheel. The air bag will help spread out the crash forces that would otherwise be concentrated by the seat belt.

Women late in pregnancy may not be able to get their abdomens away from the steering wheel. If the vehicle has a tilt steering wheel, pregnant women should make sure the steering wheel is tilted toward the breastbone, not the abdomen or the head.

Medical Conditions

Some individuals may have certain medical conditions where the risks of a deploying air bag exceed the risk of impacting the steering wheel, dashboard or windshield in the absence of an air bag. These individuals may apply for an air bag ON-OFF switch or request the air bag be deactivated. (For either the driver or passenger frontal air bag.)

The list of approved medical conditions is the same whether a consumer is applying for a frontal air bag ON-OFF switch or requesting the frontal air bag be deactivated. NHTSA will only consider requests for deactivation when your vehicle manufacturer does not make an ON-OFF switch available for your particular vehicle.

At NHTSA's request, the Ronald Reagan Institute of Emergency Medicine convened an expert panel of physicians to formulate recommendations on specific medical indications for air bag disconnection (deactivation) at the National Conference on Medical Indications for Air Bag Disconnection (July 16-18, 1997, George Washington Medical Center, Washington, DC). The panel consisted of 17 physicians, each nominated by a professional society or organization. The medical conditions considered were provided by NHTSA as the most common concerns expressed by members of the public in regard to disconnection requests.

The panel did not recommend disconnecting bags for pacemakers, supplemental oxygen, eyeglasses, median sternotomy, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, asthma, breast reconstruction, mastectomy, scoliosis (if the person is capable of being positioned properly), previous back or neck surgery, previous facial reconstructive surgery or facial injury, hyperacusis, tinnitus, advanced age, osteogenesis imperfecta, osteoporosis and arthritis (if the person can sit back at a safe distance from the air bag), previous ophthalmologic surgery, Down syndrome and atlantoaxial instability (if the person can reliably sit properly aligned in the front seat), or pregnancy.

The panel did, however, recommend disconnecting an air bag if a safe sitting distance or position cannot be maintained by a:

  1. Driver because of scoliosis or achondroplasia, or
  2. Passenger because of scoliosis or Down syndrome and atlantoaxial instability. The physicians also noted that a passenger air bag might have to be turned off if an infant or child has a medical condition and must ride in front so that he or she can be monitored.

(Download full Conference report)