Mr. James Sanders
President
Automotive Innovations, Inc.
4 First Street
P.O. Box 474
Bridgewater, MA 02324

Dear Mr. Sanders:

This responds to your letter concerning modifications that your company makes to vehicles to accommodate persons with physical disabilities. I apologize for the delay in this response. You ask for clarification of a matter concerning our prohibition against making inoperative safety devices or elements of design in motor vehicles that have been sold to the end user.

You explain that some of the adaptations and modifications you perform are funded by your state vocational rehabilitation agency, the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC). MRC is requiring you to write to our office every time you contract with MRC to adapt a vehicle for a driver, prior to performing these adaptations or modifications, "to get a ruling on whether we are violating Federal law and whether or not we would be prosecuted under 49 U.S.C. section 30122." You state that it is your understanding that you are currently allowed to perform certain modifications to a vehicle, such as disconnecting the air bag if a person is driving from a wheelchair, or modifying the OEM lap/shoulder belt assembly to accommodate a person with physical disabilities, without having to obtain a ruling from NHTSA. You ask for help in clarifying the matter.

In general, modifiers are permitted to modify vehicles without obtaining permission from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to do so, but are subject to certain statutory 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 a vehicle is sold at retail, Federal law limits the modifications made to it by manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and repair businesses. These entities are prohibited under 49 U.S.C. section 30122 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 fines up to $1,100 per violation.

As to your understanding that "we are currently allowed to perform certain modifications such as disconnecting the air bag if a person is driving from a wheelchair, or modifying the OEM lap/shoulder belt assembly to accommodate a person with physical disabilities," we believe you are referring to the effect of an exclusion(1) from the dynamic test and automatic crash protection requirements set forth in Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection, for light trucks and vans "manufactured for operation by persons with disabilities." Instead of meeting the dynamic test and automatic crash protection requirements, these vehicles may instead be equipped with a Type 2 manual belt (integrated lap and shoulder belt) or Type 2A manual belt (separate lap and shoulder belts) at the front outboard seating positions.

You do not need to write to NHTSA for a determination that the modification qualifies for this exclusion. However, to qualify for this exclusion, the vehicle must:

  • be a light truck or van manufactured before September 1, 1997,
  • incorporate a level change device (e.g. lift or ramp) for on loading or off loading an occupant in a wheelchair,
  • have 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 (such as a raised roof, or dropped floor), and
  • have either an adaptive control or special driver seating accommodation (examples are an easily removable driver's seat for driving from a wheelchair, or a power seat base for those who transfer) to enable persons who have limited use of their arms or legs to operate the vehicle.

If you modify a used light truck or van originally certified to Standard No. 208's dynamic test and automatic protection requirements, and do so in a manner that it would have qualified for the exclusion cited above, it would not be a violation of the "make inoperative" provision if you disconnected the air bag or modified the OEM lap and shoulder belts within the scope of that exclusion. In other words, at the end of such modification, instead of meeting the dynamic test and automatic crash protection requirements, such a vehicle may instead be equipped with a Type 2 manual belt (integrated lap and shoulder belt) or Type 2A manual belt (separate lap and shoulder belts) at the front outboard seating positions. Because Standard No. 208 would have permitted the vehicle to be manufactured in this manner when new, there would neither be a violation of the 30122 "make inoperative" provision or any need for this agency to consider granting an exception from that provision.

In situations involving a potential violation of 30122, where a vehicle must be modified to accommodate the needs of 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. 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.

If you believe that certain modifications must be made to accommodate the needs of 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.

For your information, NHTSA is considering proposing a regulation establishing conditions under which a vehicle may be modified to accommodate a person's disability so that the modifier will not be subjected to the make inoperative requirements of 30122. Enclosed is a copy of page 22101 of the agency's April 25, 1997 regulatory agenda where this possible rulemaking is described (entry number 2266).

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.

Sincerely,
John Womack
Acting Chief Counsel
Enclosure
ref:VSA
d.9/29/97

1. This exclusion is only available for vehicles manufactured before September 1, 1997.