Ms. Cassie V. Mason-Gibbs
Installation Management Agency
North East Region Office, Logistics Division
SFIM-NE-LD-T, Bldg 5A, Rm 204
Fort Monroe, VA 23651-1048
Dear Ms. Mason-Gibbs:
This is in response to your e-mail dated April 17, 2003, and several phone calls with Mr. Chris Calamita of my staff concerning the modification of a seven-passenger van currently being leased by the U.S. Army. As explained below, a conversion company may modify the van so long as the modifications do not take the vehicle out of compliance with any of the relevant Federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSSs).
In your letter, you stated that you are considering modifying a model year 2001 Dodge Caravan by either "removing the middle bench seat and replacing it with chairs that swivel (Captains seat) and lock in the 180 degree position (to travel backwards)" or reversing the orientation of the middle bench seat so that it faces rearward. You further stated that several conversion companies refused to perform the work because it was their contention that such modifications would be illegal. In a phone conversation with Mr. Ernest Mitchell from your branch, he stated that the modifications are intended to allow passengers the ability to perform "office work" and conduct meetings in the vehicle.
I am pleased to have this opportunity to explain our laws and regulations to you. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is authorized to issue motor vehicle safety standards that apply to the manufacture and sale of new motor vehicles and new items of motor vehicle equipment (49 U.S.C. Chapter 301). Because NHTSA recognized the unique transportation needs of the Armed Forces and the specialized functions of many military vehicles, we established a limited exemption for military vehicles.  Under 49 CFR 571.7(c), vehicles or items of equipment "manufactured for, and sold directly to, the Armed Forces of the United States in conformity with contractual specifications" are exempted from our Federal safety standards. However, the exception would not apply in this instance because the desired modifications would not further a purpose that is specific or unique to military operations. The described modifications would simply allow passengers the ability to perform "office work" in the vehicle. Therefore, the "Armed Forces" exception would not apply.
While our regulations generally apply to the manufacture of new motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment, 49 U.S.C. 30122(b) provides that:
A manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business may not knowingly make inoperative any part of a device or element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment in compliance with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard[.]
Therefore, none of the above-listed businesses, including a conversion company, could modify the leased van if the resulting modification removed the vehicle from compliance with any applicable FMVSS. This "render inoperative" prohibition does not apply to modifications vehicle owners make to their own vehicles.
Of the FMVSSs established by NHTSA, five are directly relevant to the modification of a seat in a model year 2001 vehicle: FMVSS No. 207, Seating systems; FMVSS No. 208, Occupant crash protection; FMVSS No. 209, Seat belt assemblies; FMVSS No. 210, Seat belt assembly anchorages; and FMVSS No. 225, Child restraint anchorage systems. Each standard is discussed below.
FMVSS No. 207
FMVSS No. 207 establishes requirements for seats, seat attachment assemblies, and installation to minimize the possibility of their failure during vehicle impact. A conversion company modifying the vehicles seats would have to ensure that the new seating configuration complied with this standard.
FMVSS No. 208
Under FMVSS No. 208, if any of the above-mentioned businesses were to install captain-style swivel chairs, one of two seat belt systems would be required. The first option would require a Type 2  seat belt assembly that would meet the adjustment and latch mechanism requirements while in any position in which it can be occupied while the vehicle is in motion (S126.96.36.199(i)). The second option would require that when the seat is in the forward-facing position, it would have a conforming Type 2 seat belt, in which the upper torso restraint would be detachable at the buckle. In any other seating position, the seat would be required to have a conforming Type 1 seat belt or the pelvic portion of a Type 2 seat belt assembly (S188.8.131.52(ii)). Also, any seat belt assembly anchorage installed for the modification would have to meet the requirements of FMVSS No. 210.
If any of the above-mentioned businesses were to modify the bench seat so it were rear-facing, then it would be subject to seat belt requirements of S184.108.40.206 of FMVSS No. 210. S220.127.116.11(a)(2) requires that the rear-facing bench seat be equipped with Type 1 or Type 2 seat belt assemblies at each seating position.
FMVSS No. 209
FMVSS No. 209 applies to seat belt assemblies as motor vehicle equipment. Any seat belt assembly installed as a result of the modification would have to be certified by the assemblys manufacturer as complying with FMVSS No. 209 in order for the vehicle to remain in compliance with this standard.
FMVSS No. 210
FMVSS No. 210 establishes requirements for seat belt assembly anchorages to insure their proper location for effective occupant restraint and to reduce the likelihood of their failure. If any of the above-mentioned businesses were to modify the vehicle, the business would have to ensure that the seat belt assembly anchorages would meet the location and strength requirements in the standard.
FMVSS No. 225
If a conversion company (or any of the businesses listed in 49 U.S.C. 30122(b)) were to modify the vehicle, the vehicle would have to maintain compliance with FMVSS No. 225. Under S4.2, a conforming tether anchorage would be required at no fewer than three forward-facing rear designated seating positions. Further, the modified vehicle would be required to maintain the same number of lower anchorage systems at forward-facing rear seats as are currently in the unmodified vehicle.
I hope that you find this information of use. If you have any further questions please contact Mr. Chris Calamita of my staff at (202) 366-2992.
 See, letter to Mr. Raymond M. Momboisse, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services; October 18, 1988; and letter to Donald C.J. Gray, Federal Supply Service; August 23, 1990.
 Under FMVSS No. 209 a Type 1 seat belt assembly is a lap belt for pelvic restraint and a Type 2 seat belt assembly is a combination of pelvic and upper torso restraints.