Adding decorations to a steering wheel can liven up a dull commute, and the internet now offers endless possibilities. Fuzzy steering wheel covers, stickers that look like diamonds or embroidered flowers, and even steering wheel trays with room for electronics and food are all easy to find online.
But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said this week that what may seem like a harmless decoration could cause a serious injury in a crash.
A consumer alert issued by the agency on Monday warned drivers not to adorn their steering wheels with decorative emblem decals because in a crash they could come off and hurt someone.
“In a crash, the force of a deploying airbag can turn the product into a projectile, resulting in serious injury or death,” the alert said.
Items like rhinestones are often not sold by the carmaker and are made from metal or plastic with an adhesive back that can attach to the steering wheel, the agency said.
The traffic safety administration said that drivers with such decorations on their steering wheels should remove them. In its warning, the agency cited an example of a driver who lost sight in one eye after a rhinestone decal was dislodged from the steering wheel in a crash and struck the driver in the face.
It is unclear how often such accidents occur. The traffic safety administration referred questions about the frequency of such accidents to its consumer alert, which did not specify.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Highway Administration did not immediately respond to requests for comment about incidents involving decorated steering wheels.
Joe Young, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said he was not aware of data about similar accidents other than the one cited by the traffic safety administration.
Still, Mr. Young said that the consumer warning served as “a good opportunity to remind drivers that airbags deploy with a lot of energy” and that newer vehicles often have airbags that deploy from the sides and seat.
“It’s important to keep these areas clear,” he said.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit group funded by automobile insurers and insurance associations, also recommends not using seat covers or dash covers bought through secondary markets because they can block or redirect an airbag in a crash.
Many vehicles have decals with the maker’s logo over the center of a steering wheel, but those decals are permanently affixed, the traffic safety administration said. In some instances, however, those emblems can still be dangerous.
Earlier this year, Nissan issued a recall warning consumers that old and cracked emblems over the driver’s side airbag cover could become projectiles when the airbag was deployed. The recall included more than 400,000 vehicles, including 2008-11 Titan, Frontier Xterra, Pathfinder and Armada vehicles, as well as 2008-9 Quest vans.
An airbag can deploy in less than one-twentieth of a second, and it can cause a serious or even fatal injury if a driver or a passenger is too close to it when it deploys, according to the traffic safety administration. The most common airbag injuries are minor cuts and bruises, according to the Connecticut Department of Transportation.