WASHINGTON - Despite indemnification against lawsuits by the manufacturers, most auto dealers by far remain unwilling to install airbag cutoff switches, new federal data suggest.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said last week that it approved 34,621 cutoff-switch applications through May 18, but has received back only 997 confirmations that the work was done.
Under NHTSA rules that allow the switches to be installed for certain reasons, dealers and repair shops performing the work are supposed to return the approval forms to the agency.
While NHTSA officials believe some shops may simply neglect or forget to return the forms, the agency is concerned that the low rate of return shows that dealers are not performing the work for people who need it.
'Based on the returns, it appears, for example, that only two dealers in the entire state of California will perform the work,' said a NHTSA spokesman.
'One is in San Diego, and the other is in Los Angeles. That doesn't do much for anyone in central and northern California.'
NHTSA's concerns appeared to be borne out by several interviews at the American International Automobile Dealers Association congress in Washington last week.
AIADA Chairman Dave Mungenast, who owns Honda, Acura, Lexus, Toyota and Dodge stores in St. Louis, said dealers know that factory indemnification will not protect them from the process, the hassle, of lawsuits.
For example, 'Even though we were indemnified by the factories, we still had to spend a lot of time with attorneys when a suit was filed,' he said, describing his former experience selling all-terrain vehicles.
'Who needs that?'
Now, at his auto dealerships, Mungenast says he first tries to talk customers out of their decision to seek a cutoff switch. But if the customers still want the service, he suggests they go elsewhere.
He won't recommend a specific garage, though.
'If they did a bad job, we would probably assume some liability,' he said.
But fear of lawsuits is not the only reason dealers said they do not want customers turning off the devices.
'On the whole, airbags save a lot of lives,' said Alan DeBoer, who has Subaru, Volvo, Mitsubishi, Chevrolet and Oldsmobile franchises at his three dealerships in and near Medford, Ore.
'We as dealers need to talk to customers about safety, not liability.'