9030 Congressional Parkway
Potomac, MD 20854
Dear Mr. Brown:
This responds to your April 28, 1997 telephone conversation with Walter Myers of my staff and to your follow-up letters, in which you ask whether you may have a vehicle modifier move the seat in your 1996 Cadillac two inches farther to the rear to make it physically possible for you to operate the vehicle.
Modifiers are permitted to modify vehicles without obtaining this agency's permission, 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. Because your situation is among those given special consideration by NHTSA, this letter should provide you with the relief you seek.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is authorized by law to issue Federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS) that establish performance requirements for new motor vehicles and new items of motor vehicle equipment. Federal law further provides that manufacturers must certify that their products conform to all applicable FMVSSs before those products can be offered for sale. In addition, Federal law prohibits manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and commercial repair businesses from knowingly "making inoperative" any device or element of design installed on or in a vehicle in compliance with an applicable FMVSS. In general, the "make inoperative" provision requires repair businesses to ensure that they do not remove, disconnect, or degrade the performance of safety equipment installed in a vehicle in compliance with an applicable FMVSS. Violations of this prohibition are punishable by civil fines up to $1,100 per violation.
In this case, moving a seat, whether or not the seat belts are also moved, could affect compliance with four standards: No. 207, Seating Systems; No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection; No. 209, Seat Belt Assemblies; and No. 210, Seat Belt Assembly Anchorages. In situations such as yours, however, where the modification must be made to accommodate a disability, we have been willing to consider violation of the "make inoperative" provision a purely technical one justified by public need. Accordingly, this agency will not institute enforcement proceedings against a repair business that modifies the seat on your vehicle to accommodate your condition.
We caution, however, that only necessary modifications should be made to the seat, and the person making the modifications should consider the possible safety consequences of those modifications. For example, in moving a seat, it is essential that the modifier ensure that the seat is solidly anchored in its new location. You should also be aware that the occupant of a seat that has been moved rearward may have less protection in a crash if the seat is too far rearward relative to the anchorages of the safety belts for that seat. Finally, if you sell your vehicle, we strongly encourage you to advise the purchaser of the modifications you have made to the vehicle.
I hope this information is helpful to you. If you have any questions or need further information, please feel free to contact this office at this address or by fax at (202) 366-3820.
Acting Chief Counsel