Ms. Connie L. Stauffer
Lift-Aids, Inc.
2381 Pecan Ct.
Fort Worth, TX 76117

Dear Ms. Stauffer:

This responds to your letter asking for interpretations regarding the permissibility of modifications which affect compliance with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. I apologize for the delay in our response. You tell us that you are a modifier of vehicles for the disabled and sometimes must alter equipment for the use of your customers.

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. If a certified vehicle is modified, other than by the addition, substitution, or removal of readily attachable components, prior to its first retail sale, the person making the modification is an alterer and is required to certify that, as altered, the vehicle continues to conform to all applicable safety standards. After the first retail sale, there is one limit on modifications made to vehicles. 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 safety standard. In general, the "make inoperative" prohibition would require a business which modifies motor vehicles to ensure that they do not remove, disconnect, or degrade the performance of safety equipment installed in compliance with an applicable safety standard. Violations of this prohibition are punishable by civil penalties of up to $1,100 per violation.

In situations where a vehicle must be modified to accommodate the needs of an individual with a particular disability, we have, where appropriate, been willing to consider certain unavoidable violations of the "make inoperative" prohibition as purely technical ones justified by public need, and issued a letter to that effect. However, it is often possible to make modifications in a way that does not degrade the performance of safety equipment installed in compliance with an applicable standard.

The situation currently before you concerns relocation of the center highmounted stop lamp (CHMSL), required by Standard No. 108, specifically on the 1997 General Motors G Van, on which you want to "raise the rear doors." As you understand it, "we can relocate the light as long as we reposition it in such a way that it is still visible for its intended purpose." You ask whether we can "clarify that in more detail."

Raising the CHMSL above its original location does not, by itself, create a compliance problem since Standard No. 108 sets no upper limit for the mounting height of CHMSLs. In its new location, however, the CHMSL must not be obscured or tilted; Lift-Aid must ensure that the lamp remains in compliance with the location, visibility, and photometric requirements of Standard No. 108. This means that, as relocated, the lamp(s) must remain on the vertical centerline not less than 34 inches above the road surface, and must not be obscured by any other motor vehicle equipment so that the photometric and visibility requirements of Standard No. 108 continue to be met. If this is insufficiently clear to you, you may FAX a photo of your intended location to us (FAX 202-366-3820)and we will be pleased to advise you further. You may also telephone Taylor Vinson of this Office (202-366-5263).

You also asked about several other situations, identified below, and ask what the "proper documentation" would be.

  1. Removal of air bags from steering wheel at customer's request for the following reasons:
    1. Adding a spinner or driver knob to wheel that may rupture the air bag or that may become a projectile when air bag deploys.
    2. Occasionally we have to add a steering wheel column extension to bring the steering wheel closer than the normal position for persons with limited arm movement.

  2. Removal of the new female side seat belt pretensioner on the new 1997 Ford van in order to install a 6 way driver power seat base that enables a disabled person to transfer into the driver seat.
  3. Occasionally we have to move the rear sofa back to make room for the wheelchair lifts which also affects the seat belts.

If you believe that certain modifications must be made to accommodate the needs of an individual with a particular disability, and that the modifications cannot be made without violating the "make inoperative" provision discussed above, you may write to us and request a letter stating that we will not enforce that provision. The letter should identify the specific facts at issue and why you cannot avoid violating that provision. It should also demonstrate the that proposed modifications minimize the safety consequences of the noncompliances. I note that the modifications you have identified 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.

With respect to removing an air bag because a spinner or driver knob has been added to the wheel, I note that it is not clear that it is desirable to remove an air bag in the situation you describe. I have enclosed for your information a copy of a recent report titled "Air Bag Interaction with and Injury Potential from Common Steering Control Devices."

I hope this information is helpful. If you have any further questions, please feel free to call Edward Glancy of my staff at (202) 366-2992.

John Womack
Acting Chief Counsel