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On-Off Air Bags Raise Liability Risks Dealerships Install Switches, But Often With Reluctance

Consumers who get on-off switches for their auto air bags may be taking on the legal responsibility if they are in a crash in which an air bag would have helped, lawyers and insurers say.

But mechanics at dealerships are still wary of liability and some are installing cutoff switches with some reluctance.

A General Motors dealership, Holiday Chevrolet Geo in Farmington Hills, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, has had several inquiries about switches and plans to install them, service adviser Ken Berman said Monday.

“We’d rather not,” said Berman, “but yes, we will put them in.”

Mike Fisher, the service manager at Fairlane Ford Sales Inc. in Dearborn, Mich., said the dealership will not be installing the switches until it is clear whether mechanics will be held liable.

“We are holding out until all the legal technicalities have been worked out on this issue,” he said.

In Maryland, Chevy Chase Cars Inc. service adviser Joe Lyons said the dealership would install them only for customers who bought their cars there.

“We feel obligated to do something for them,” said Lyons.

Car owners can go to dealerships and independent mechanics, starting this week, to ask for installation of the switches.

About 5,000 consumers have already received permission from the government for the switches, saying they want to better protect their passengers from inadvertent harm from a deploying bag.

Air bags have been blamed for the deaths of 50 children and 39 adults in low-speed accidents they otherwise should have survived, according to the government. But the devices also have saved an estimated 2,600 lives.

Lawyers see legal difficulty ahead for consumers who get the switches.

“If I choose to go out and have my car equipped with a cutoff switch and I deactivate the air bag, I should be the one responsible,” said Francis Patrick Murphy, a Chicago lawyer who represents plaintiffs in personal injury cases.

But Murphy and other lawyers say nobody knows for sure what will happen until such a case reaches the courts.

Some insurers also believe consumers would be held liable.

To get a switch, consumers must fill out a government application that states they understand that “turning off an air bag may have serious safety consequences.” The form is signed under penalty of perjury.

Dealers also can have their own waiver form, too. Doug Greenhaus, director of safety in the National Automobile Dealers Association’s legal office, says all the paperwork is designed to protect dealers and will make them less likely to refuse to install switches.

xxxx HOW TO APPLY FOR AN AIR BAG SWITCH The process for car owners who want to install an air bag switch, according to the government: Someone can apply for the cutoff switch if he or she cannot sit at least 10 inches from the steering wheel, has a medical condition or must put a young child in the front seat because of a large family, carpooling or lack of a back seat. Motorists can get a request form from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and at some dealerships, repair shops and state motor vehicle offices. The government agency can be reached at 800-424-9393, or the form can be downloaded from the agency’s Internet web site at The agency sends back a one-page application and an informational brochure describing the benefits and risks of air bags. Motorists sign the paperwork under penalty of perjury certifying that they fit into one of the higher-risk categories and send it back to the government. The form states the consumer understands that “turning off an air bag may have serious safety consequences.” NHTSA then sends the owner an authorization letter for the mechanic to install the switch. Mechanics also may require an additional waiver form.

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