Rehabilitation Technology Associates, Inc.
P.O. Box 540
Kinderhook, NY 12106h
Dear Mr. Babirad:
This responds to your letter of February 5, 1996, requesting "a waiver of FMVSS 208 in regards to the air bag deployment system." You explained that you have
been asked to advise a consumer with regards to installing an aftermarket six way power seat base into his 1995 Dodge Ram Van. This power seat base installation mounts in an area which requires the relocation of one of the air bag deployment sending units found under the driver's seat. The instructions provided by the OEM specifically prohibit relocation of this unit.
You further explained that the van owner "is permanently disabled and requires a wheelchair for all of his mobility." Because of the special design of this seat base, he is able to transfer into the seat.
In summary, our answer is that the vehicle may be modified. NHTSA will not institute enforcement proceedings against a repair business that modifies the seat on a vehicle to accommodate a condition such as you describe. 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 the situation you describe 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 provides information that the modification to the vehicle cannot be done in a way that would not violate the make inoperative prohibition.
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 the vehicle to accommodate the condition you describe.
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. In addition, you should consult with the manufacturer to determine the effect of moving the air bag deployment sending unit. The modification may cause the air bag to deploy, and the manufacturer should be able to provide information on how the modification can be safely performed. Finally, if the vehicle is sold, we encourage the owner 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