Short Driver and Air Bag

My 16yo daughter just started driving, and we have a 1998 Dodge Neon with manual transmission as our third car.

The problem is that she is only 5’ tall, and in order to use the clutch, she has to sit relatively close to the steering wheel. Eight inches is the maximum distance she can get, and even then, she has problems changing gears. (The other cars are automatic, and she can sit more than 10" from the steering wheels in those cars.) We have read the Car Talk page on this (http://www…links.html).

We’re looking at either getting pedal extenders or an air bag switch, but wanted feedback from others on which is the more practical solution. Her dad and I are also likely to drive the car, so I’m thinking that a switch would be more practical. DD is more inclined toward pedal extenders because she’s worried about running into the steering wheel in an accident, even with the seat belt on.

Feedback would be appreciated.


Get the pedal extenders. Even with a professional doing it, you want to avoid messing with the airbag system, and maybe cutting into the wiring harness. It will potentially make the SRS system unreliable. Pedal extenders are much more affordable and safer IMHO.

Don’t even think about putting in a switch to cut out the drivers air bag.

Doesn’t anyone think about safety for their children? Geezuz.

I make no apologies for saying that either. Do what BustedKnuckles said.

Prefer the pedal extenders. You want the extra distance from the steering wheel in any case and then you want to retain the functional airbag for additional safety.

I have no qualms about cutting into the wiring harness and installing a switch if that’s anyone’s choice. I don’t understand everyone’s trepidation over tinkering with the airbag circuitry. It’s just another electrical accessory, for pity’s sake. Of course, this solution would set the SRS warning light, but that would be a useful reminder for those who would rather have the airbag functional.

Here is a link to a Airbag article from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. A couple of important points, they recommend 10" as a minimum distance from the steering wheel and in 1998 most cars were equipped with second generation (de-powered) air bags. Check the owners manual if you have one or call a dealer and ask if the Neon has the de-powered airbags. There is a phone number for pedal extenders also. I have a couple of years before my oldest gets her license, she is rather petite, so she’ll most likely be in the same situation as your daughter. I suppose you could just have her drive the other two cars for now.

Ed B.

I’d get the pedal extenders. The air bag is especially important on the steering wheel to keep the driver from striking the steering wheel. Odds are she will never need it, but it’s a extra margin of safety since cars don’t have 5-point restraints.

Extenders for all of the pedals, including the gas pedal. Have you thought about some kind of a seat cushion/pillow so’s she can see over the steering wheel?

Really dumb question. Where are the measurements from and to?? Steering wheel to face?? chest?? waist?? Sorry I guess maybe I missed it. Could someone clarify?

The problem with the pedal extenders is that it would pretty much prevent DH and me from driving the car. Neither of us is really tall (both of us are 5’4"), but we can currently sit at a comfortable distance from the steering wheel and manage the pedals. If I had to back up two or more inches from where I sit now in the car, I would not be able to comfortably control the steering wheel.

I would really like to hear from someone with first-hand experience in this situation, though, rather than just getting suggestions from people of normal height. If we choose to deactivate the air-bag, though, we will probably also look into putting in a 5-point harness–something we actually discussed when this topic came up at dinner before I posted the question.


The measurement is steering wheel to chest. The driver’s chest should be a minimum of 10 inches from the steering wheel to reduce chances of injury caused by deployment of the air bag.

I became concerned about this when I was watching DD drive a couple of weeks ago, and I noticed how close her chest was to the steering wheel. The cover for the air bag along would literally whack her in the chest if it opened–even if she didn’t move any farther forward than where she normally sits, which isn’t likely. She thought I was just being paranoid until she starting looking around online and finding warnings about this situation.

She currently drives one of the other two cars when she needs to drive, but she doesn’t like my car (a minivan) and DH has special radio equipment in his car that he can’t really move easily to a different car. This is also not specifically HER car–just a third car that I can drive instead of driving the minivan (to save gas), and so that when we need to be in three different places at the same time, we can take advantage of the fact that she has a driver’s license. For all of these reasons, I don’t want to make it impossible for me or DH to drive the car.


I’m 5’4" (which, FYI, I consider “normal height”) and I drive a 1996 Dodge Neon. I think you should get the pedal extenders for your daughter. If your daughter is the primary driver, it should be as safe as possible for her, and her safety should be more important than your convenience.

The 4-inch height difference probably isn’t as much as you’d think. You and your husband should be able to slide the seat far enough back to reach the pedals and still reach the steering wheel comfortably as long as you don’t drive with the seat reclined. If one of you was 6 feet tall, it’d be a different story.

If feasible, use two vehicles and have one custom fit just for your daughter.

There are shops that will do this or will at least give you some ideas. Let your fingers do the walking. Perhaps the people who retro fit vans for wheelchairs could help.

I have a friend of mine who has the opposite problem. He’s too close to the air-bag because he’s so BIG. 6’2…400lbs. The steering wheel rubs his belly when he drives.

Just thought I’d post the outcome, since others may be interested or find the information useful.

There is a local shop that modifies vans for disabilities, and they had pedal extenders available–$60 per extender. I assume that there are a variety of sizes, but they only showed us 2" extenders, since DD really doesn’t need much extension. There are also two types–one that works on the brake and clutch pedals and another that is supposed to work with the gas pedal.

The technician at the shop put extenders on the clutch and gas pedals, to give us a chance to see how they would work. The extender actually did not fit well on the gas pedal, but the technician thought he could secure it well enough to keep it from slipping or falling off. However, DD decided she really only needed the extender on the clutch pedal. She can reach the regular gas and brake pedals just fine and still have more than 10 inches clearance between her chest and the steering wheel.

The extender is well attached to the pedal. While it can be removed easily if we decide to sell the car or she no longer needs to use it, it’s not easy to take it on and off for different drivers on a regular basis. I can drive the car with the extender on the clutch, though, so that will let me leave my minivan at home when I don’t need the extra room.

In retrospect, we probably could have used a cousin’s idea of taping a wooden block to the pedal, but the extender is much more securely attached and less likely to slide in use.

Thanks for the suggestions.


Thanks for posting back, glad to hear things worked out. I’ll be facing this in another two years with my daughter whose not quite 5 ft yet. She and I are hoping for a growth spurt.

Ed B.

Thanks for the update. We’re glad to see you found a comfortable solution, and other folks may learn from your experience.

Drivers that are just starting out need every thing possible going good for them,this includes a car they fit well in. Find a car she fits well in,make it an automatic. Getting rid of a 1998 Neon is not such a loss. Your daughters safety is the most important concern (along with public safety)