425 E. Vine St.
Kalamazoo, MI 49001
Dear Mr. Pollard:
This responds to your letter of March 21, 1996, requesting an exemption for "modifications of motor vehicles for drivers with physical disabilities." Your current issue concerns a modification to install an electric hydraulic seat base to allow the driver to transfer from a wheelchair to the supplied drivers seat on a 1996 Chevrolet Van. According to the seat base manufacturer, (B&D Industries of Mt. Carmel, IL) the airbag device must be disarmed to perform this modification.
In general, repair businesses are permitted to modify vehicles without obtaining permission from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to do so, but are subject to certain regulatory limits on the type of modifications they may make.
NHTSA 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 (such as an air bag) installed in compliance with an applicable standard. 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 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. While your letter does not explain why "the airbag device must be disarmed to accommodate" the apparatus to be installed, we are aware that some vehicles have air bag deployment sending units under the driver's seat and that the instructions provided by the OEM specifically prohibit relocation of these units.
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. In your situation, NHTSA will not institute enforcement proceedings against the business that modifies the seat on the vehicle to accommodate the condition you describe.
We caution, however, that only necessary modifications should be made, and the person making the modifications should consider other safety issues that might arise from the modification. For example, in installing a new base below 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 how to disarm the air bag. The modification may cause the air bag to deploy. 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.
Your letter also suggests that a "blanket exemption" would be useful to modifiers. The current Standard No. 208 contains an exclusion from the automatic protection requirement for trucks and multipurpose passenger vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less. Air bags are installed in vehicles as one means of complying with this requirement. The exclusion applies to "vehicles manufactured for operation by persons with disabilities," 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.
Your letter does not contain enough information to indicate whether your situation falls within this exclusion. However, you may nonetheless rely on non- enforcement of the standard for the reasons I described above.
You should also note that the "blanket" 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.
If you have other questions or need some additional information, please contact Mary Versailles of my staff at this address or by phone at (202) 366-2992.
Samuel J. Dubbin Chief Counsel
ref: VSA# 208 d:5/3/96