4 Duchess Court
Baltimore, MD 21237
Dear Ms. Gottlieb:
This responds to your letter of February 14, 1995, requesting an "exemption" from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to allow a business to modify your motor vehicle. Your letter states:
I am disabled and need 3-4" of additional room for the passenger seat to allow my legs to straighten on long trips. I have two replaced hips and arthritis in my knees. If I leave my legs slightly bent for long periods of time, I suffer too much pain to be active at the end of the drive. By allowing my legs to straighten all the way out, there is no pain at all.
You state that you were told that this modification cannot be done as it would "interfere with the functionality of the air bag."
In summary, our answer is that you may have your vehicle modified. NHTSA will not institute enforcement proceedings against a repair business that modifies the seat on your vehicle to accommodate your condition. A more detailed answer to your letter is provided below.
I would like to begin by clarifying that there is no procedure by which persons petition for and are granted an exemption from NHTSA to have a motor vehicle repair business modify their motor vehicle. Repair businesses are permitted to modify vehicles without obtaining permission from NHTSA to do so, but are subject to certain regulatory limits on the type of modifications they may make. In certain limited situations, we have exercised our discretion in enforcing our requirements to provide some allowances to a repair business which cannot conform to our requirements when making modifications to accommodate the special needs of persons with disabilities. Since your situation is among those given special consideration by NHTSA, this letter should provide you with the relief you seek.
Our agency is authorized to issue Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) that set performance requirements for new motor vehicles and items of motor vehicle equipment. Manufacturers are required to certify that their products conform to our safety standards before they can be offered for sale. 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 FMVSS. In general, the "make inoperative" prohibition would require repair businesses which modify motor vehicles to ensure that they do not remove, disconnect, or degrade the performance of safety equipment installed in compliance with an applicable FMVSS. Violations of this prohibition are punishable by civil fines up to $1,000 per violation.
Moving a seat could affect compliance with Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection. Standard No. 208 sets forth requirements for occupant protection at the various seating positions in a vehicles. Standard No. 208 requires that cars be equipped with automatic crash protection at the front outboard seating positions. Automatic crash protection systems protect their occupants by means that require no action by vehicle occupants. Compliance with the automatic crash protection requirements of Standard No. 208 is determined in a dynamic crash test. That is, a vehicle must comply with specified injury criteria, as measured on a test dummy, in a 30 mph barrier crash test. The two types of automatic crash protection currently offered are automatic safety belts (which help to assure belt use) and air bags (which supplement safety belts and offer some protection even when safety belts are not used).
Based on the information in your letter, it appears that the manufacturer of your vehicle installed air bags as the means of complying with Standard No. 208's requirement. Your modifier is concerned that the modification of the seat would "make inoperative" the air bag. I would like to note that accident data would suggest that a person is at greater risk of injury from an air bag from sitting too close to the air bag, rather than further away from the air bag. However, I understand that, due to the dynamic testing requirement, the modifier will be unable to ensure that the vehicle continues to comply with Standard No. 208's requirements.
In situations such as yours where a vehicle must be modified to accommodate the needs of a particular disability, we have been willing to consider any violations of the "make inoperative" prohibition a purely technical one justified by public need. As I have already noted above, NHTSA will not institute enforcement proceedings against a repair business that modifies the seat on your vehicle to accommodate your condition.
We caution, however, that only necessary modifications should be made to the seat, and the person making the modifications should consider the possible safety consequences of the modifications. For example, in moving a seat, it is critical that the modifier ensure that the seat is solidly anchored in its new location. You should also be aware that an occupant of a seat which has been moved rearward may have less protection in a crash if the seat is too far rearward relative to the anchorages of the safety belts for that seat. Finally, if you sell your vehicle, we encourage you to advise the purchaser of the modifications.
I hope this information has been helpful. If you have any other questions or need some additional information in this area, please contact Mary Versailles of my staff at this address or by phone at (202) 366-2992.
John Womack Acting Chief Counsel