Alamo Mobility, Inc.
8666 Huebner Road, Suite 104
San Antonio, TX 78240
Dear Mr. Powell:
This responds to your letter of March 1, 1996, requesting:
permission to disable an airbag in a vehicle being modified for a driver who has a physical disability. Her condition requires that the OEM steering wheel be replaced with a smaller 13" wheel. In addition, in order to drive from her wheelchair, she must be positioned so close to the wheel that it appears that deployment of the airbag will cause bodily injury.
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 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 standard. 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 standard. Violations of this prohibition are punishable by civil fines up to $1,000 per violation.
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 steering wheel and air bag on the vehicle to accommodate the condition you describe.
We caution, however, that only necessary modifications should be made to the vehicle. In addition, the modifier should take care in making the modifications. 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 resold, we urge the owner to advise the purchaser of the modifications and consider reinstalling the removed safety equipment, if appropriate.
Finally, I note that an air bag may not be required for this vehicle. NHTSA has amended Standard No. 208 to allow an exclusion from the automatic protection requirements for trucks and multipurpose passenger vehicles "manufactured for operation by persons with disabilities." That term is defined to include:
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.
This exclusion will not be available under the new regulation that requires the installation of air bags to meet the automatic protection requirements. That regulation will be phased in beginning with vehicles manufactured on or after September 1, 1997 (1998 model year). All vehicles must comply the following year. NHTSA is, however, examining issues concerning the undesired side effects from air bags, including interactions with special adaptive equipment for persons with disabilities. I have enclosed a previously published request for comments, related to this issue, for your information.
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
Enclosure ref:VSA#208 d:4/2/96