6704 Forsythia St.
Springfield, VA 22150
Dear Mr. Gregorio:
This responds to your letter of September 23, 1995, requesting "authorization to modify the car seat in my 1992 Plymouth Acclaim." Your letter states:
Presently, my car is equipped with hand controls which alleviates a condition of chronic tendinitis in my right ankle. Unfortunately, there is practically no room between the hand controls and my knees. My knees constantly bang up against the hand controls. The resulting consequence is that I now have tendinitis in both knees. Modifying the car seat will allow me to push the car seat back far enough to give space to my injured knees.
You enclosed a letter from your physician stating that recovery could take several years.
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 noting that 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, and presumably moving the seat belts for the seat, could affect compliance with four safety standards: Standard No. 207, Seating Systems, Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection, Standard No. 209, Seat Belt Assemblies, and Standard No. 210, Seat Belt Assembly Anchorages. Your letter does not provide any information regarding why the modification to your seat cannot be done in a way that would not violate the make inoperative prohibition.
However, 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.
Samuel J. Dubbin Chief Counsel