Albertson, Ward & McCaffrey
36 Euclid Street
Woodbury, NJ 08096
Dear Mr. Kelly:
This responds to your letter of February 2, 1995, requesting permission or a waiver from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to allow one of your clients, a "corporation specializing in modification of vehicles for handicapped and disabled citizens," to modify a vehicle for one of its customers. You explained that the customer "suffers from a neuromuscular disorder which renders her partially paralyzed." You further explained that "(s)he cannot turn the factory steering wheel because it is too thick for her to hold and too wide for her to see the gauges." You described previous modifications done for this customer as follows:
the steering box on a stock vehicle (would be) removed and the steering mechanism would be adjusted at a machine shop to a low effort or zero effort steering gear. From this point after- market steering wheels and column adapter kits would be installed to accept this new steering wheel.
You explained that your client was concerned that they would no longer be permitted to make such modifications as removal of the original steering wheel also results in removal of the air bag. During an April 4, 1995 phone call with Mary Versailles of my staff you explained that the vehicle is also equipped with a wheelchair lift and that the floor of the vehicle has been lowered. As explained in this letter, replacement of the steering wheel is permitted provided that a lap/shoulder safety belt is installed at the driver's position.
By way of background, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is authorized to issue Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that set performance requirements for new motor vehicles and items of motor vehicle equipment (49 USC '30111). Manufacturers are required to certify that their products conform
to all applicable safety standards before they can be offered for sale (49 USC '30112). If a certified vehicle is modified, other than by the addition, substitution, or removal of readily attachable components, prior to its first retail sale, the person making the modification is an alterer and is required to certify that, as altered the vehicle continues to conform to all applicable safety standards (49 CFR '567.7).
After the first retail sale, there is one limit on modifications made to vehicles. Manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and repair businesses are prohibited from "knowingly making inoperative" any device or element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle in compliance with an applicable safety standard (49 USC '30122). In general, the "make inoperative" prohibition would require a business which modifies motor vehicles to ensure that they do not remove, disconnect, or degrade the performance of safety equipment installed in compliance with an applicable safety standard.
NHTSA has exercised its authority to issue Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection (49 CFR '571.208). Standard No. 208 requires light trucks and vans manufactured on or after September 1, 1991 to be capable of providing occupant crash protection to front seat occupants when the vehicle is crash tested at 30 miles per hour (mph) into a concrete barrier. A vehicle that provides this crash protection will increase the safety of vehicle occupants. The air bag installed in the customer's vehicle is one means of complying with this requirement.
As a result of this new requirement, this agency received a number of phone calls and letters, from both van converters and individuals suggesting that the new light truck and van crash testing requirement will, in effect, prohibit van converters from modifying vehicles to accommodate the special needs of persons in wheelchairs. The agency also received a petition asking for an amendment to the light truck and van crash test requirement in Standard No. 208 to address this problem.
As a result on that petition, on March 2, 1993, this agency amended Standard No. 208 to allow manufacturers of light trucks and vans an alternative to complying with the existing requirement (58 FR 11975). Under the amendment, "vehicles manufactured for operation by persons with disabilities" are excluded from the light truck and van automatic crash protection requirement. Instead, these vehicles must be equipped with a Type 2 manual belt (integrated lap and shoulder belt) or Type 2A manual belt (non-integrated lap and shoulder belt) at the front outboard seating positions. A "vehicle manufactured for operation by persons with disabilities" is defined as
vehicles that incorporate a level change device (e.g., a wheelchair lift or a ramp) for onloading or offloading an occupant in a wheelchair, an interior element of design intended to provide the vertical clearance necessary to permit a person in a wheelchair to move between the lift or ramp and the driver's position or to occupy that position, and either an adaptive control or special driver seating accommodation to enable persons who have limited use of their arms or legs to operate a vehicle. For purposes of this definition, special driver seating accommodations include a driver's seat easily removable with means installed for that purpose or with simple tools, or a driver's seat with extended adjustment capability to allow a person to easily transfer from a wheelchair to the driver's seat.
Based on the information you provided, the customer's van would come within this definition. Therefore, if your client would be considered an alterer, it may certify that, with the air bag removed, the vehicle continues to conform to all applicable safety standards, provided that the safety belts are not removed. If the modification is done after the first retail sale, removal of the air bag would not violate the "make inoperative" prohibition, provided that the safety belts are not removed.
I hope this information has been helpful. If you have other questions or need some additional information, please contact Mary Versailles at this address or by phone at (202) 366-2992.
John Womack Acting Chief Counsel ref:208#VSA d:5/1/95 The March 2 final rule was further amended on May 18, 1994 to allow the installation of Type 2A manual belts (59 FR 25826).