Fleet and Building Manager
Public Works Department
City of Burbank
124 South Lake Street
P.O. Box 6459
Burbank, CA 91510-6459
Dear Mr. Van Hazelen:
This responds to your letter, on behalf of the Police Department of the City of Burbank, requesting a "formal written passenger air bag deactivation waiver." The Department requested deactivation of the passenger side air bag and the removal of the passenger side seat in two Ford Crown Victoria police patrol vehicles. According to your letter, computers will be mounted in the deployment area of the passenger air bag, and the front passenger seats will be removed. As explained below, this type of modification would be permitted under Federal law. Therefore, you do not need an "air bag deactivation waiver."
Some background information about our agency may be helpful. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is authorized under Title 49, Chapter 301 of the U.S. Code to issue Federal motor vehicle safety standards that set performance requirements for new motor vehicles and new items of motor vehicle equipment. Federal law prohibits the manufacture or sale of any new motor vehicle or new item of motor vehicle equipment which does not conform to all applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards.
Among the standards that NHTSA has issued are two which could be affected by the modification you propose: Standard No. 207, Seating Systems, (49 CFR 571.207), which requires each vehicle to have an occupant seat for the driver and sets strength and other performance requirements for all occupant seats in a vehicle, and Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection (49 CFR 571.208), which specifies occupant protection requirements based on vehicle type and seating position within the vehicle.
If your contemplated modification is made before a vehicle's first purchase for purposes other than resale, the person who modifies the vehicle would be an alterer of a previously certified motor vehicle and would be required to certify that, as altered, the vehicle continues to comply with all of the safety standards affected by the alteration (See 49 CFR Part 567.7). Once the front passenger seat is removed, Standard No. 208 would not require an air bag for that location since an occupant restraint is only required if a seating position is there.
Federal law also limits the modifications that can be made by certain businesses to vehicles. Manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and repair businesses may not "knowingly make inoperative" any device or element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle or equipment in compliance with an applicable safety standard.
NHTSA does not consider there to be a violation of the "make inoperative" prohibition with respect to occupant restraints if, after one of the named types of commercial entities modifies a used vehicle, the vehicle is equipped with occupant restraints at every seating position and those occupant restraints are the type that Standard No. 208 permitted when the vehicle was new.
Again, if a seating position were removed from a used vehicle, the removal of the air bag as well would not violate the make inoperative provision because the presence of the air bag was originally premised on the presence of the seating position.
However, the make inoperative prohibition would be violated if removal of the passenger side air bag caused the driver side air bag to malfunction or deploy. I would like to caution you to contact the vehicle manufacturer concerning the proper procedure for any air bag removal. Removing an air bag could cause it to deploy and injure the mechanic. In addition, removal of the passenger side air bag could cause the driver side air bag to malfunction or deploy.
I note that the "make inoperative" prohibition applies only to the named entities. Therefore, vehicle owners are permitted to make any modifications to their vehicles, even if the vehicle would no longer comply with applicable safety standards.
I also note that S4.5.2 of Standard No. 208 requires a readiness indicator for an air bag system which is clearly visible from the driver's seating position. NHTSA believes that most manufacturers install one indicator for both air bags. After the passenger side air bag is removed, this indicator would show that the air bag system is not operative. NHTSA is concerned that the driver would then be unable to tell if the driver side air bag were functional. Therefore, I urge you to contact the manufacturer to determine how the indicator could be altered to monitor the readiness of the driver side air bag only.
As a final caution, I note that the purpose of the "make inoperative" provision is to ensure, to the degree possible, current and subsequent owners and users of the vehicle are not deprived of the maximum protection afforded by the vehicle as newly manufactured. It is our understanding that it is common for police cars to be sold after a few years of service. Presumably any police equipment would be removed before such a sale. I urge you to either reinstall the passenger seat and occupant restraint or to make these modifications in a way that will discourage reinstallation of the passenger seat, so that future users of the vehicle are unlikely to use a seating position that does not have any occupant restraint.
I hope you find this information helpful. If you have any other questions, please contact Edward Glancy of my staff at this address or by phone at (202) 366-2992.
Acting Chief Counsel