17 Ballinger Court
Burtonsville, MD 20866
Dear Ms. Jones:
This responds to your faxed letter of May 19, 1994. As you explained in your letter:
My three month old son has a physical condition whereby the formula that he drinks refluxes back into his throat causing him to choke and become unable to breathe. Due to this condition, I cannot keep his infant seat in the back of the car where I will be unable to reach him and thus prevent him from choking.
My problem lies in that I have a passenger as well as a driver's side air bag in our 1993 Ford Taurus Wagon. Due to the danger of having an infant's seat in the front of a car with a passenger air bag, I have contacted local Ford dealers as well as the overall Ford customer service people and have been told each time that they will not disable my car air bags for me as it is against federal law.
You requested "a waiver of a portion of the federal guidelines regarding air bags in automobiles."
Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection, requires that cars be equipped with automatic crash protection at the front outboard seating positions. The air bags in your car were installed as one means of complying with that requirement.
The removal or deactivation of one of those air bags by a vehicle dealer is prohibited by section 108(a)(2)(A) of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, the act under Standard No. 208 was issued. That section provides that--
(n)o manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business shall knowingly render inoperative, in whole or in part, any device or
element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle ... in compliance with an applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standard.
However, in limited situations in which a vehicle must be modified to accommodate the needs of a person with a particular disability or a person's special medical needs, NHTSA has in the past stated that it would consider violations of the "render inoperative" prohibition as purely technical ones justified by public need, and that it would not institute enforcement proceedings. This is to advise you that we would regard a temporary deactivation of the passenger- side air bag in your car in the same way. Based on the results of recent agency research, NHTSA has concluded that rear-facing infant restraints should not be placed in the front seat of a vehicle with a passenger-side air bag. NHTSA would consider the special medical needs of your child as sufficient justification for not taking enforcement action against a dealer that temporarily deactivates the air bag to accommodate your child.
I want to add a caution. The purpose of the "render inoperative" prohibition is to ensure, to the degree possible, current and subsequent owners and users of your vehicle are not deprived of the maximum protection afforded by the vehicle as newly manufactured. Accordingly, our willingness to permit this deactivation is conditioned on the reactivation of the air bag by the dealer as soon as your son can use a forward-facing child restraint. In addition, I strongly encourage you to ensure that other passengers in this seating position use their safety belts while the air bag is disconnected.
I hope that this letter resolves your problem. If you have any other questions, please contact Mary Versailles of my staff at this address or by phone at (202) 366-2992.
John Womack Acting Chief Counsel