Mr. Jurgen Babirad
Rehabilitation Technology Associates
P.O. Box 540
Kinderhook, N.Y. 12106

Dear Mr. Babirad:

This responds to your letter of April 16, 1997, requesting information regarding modification of a motor vehicle for a driver with physical disabilities. Specifically, you request a waiver of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection, as the modifications proposed for this particular vehicle will replace the driver's seat with a wheelchair restraint system and remove the driver from the vicinity of the air bag originally installed in the vehicle.

By way of background information, 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 apply to the manufacture and sale of new motor vehicles and new items of motor vehicle equipment. Chapter 301 prohibits any person from manufacturing, introducing into commerce, selling, or importing any new motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment unless the vehicle or equipment item is in conformity with all applicable safety standards. NHTSA does not approve motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment, nor do we endorse any commercial products. Instead, Chapter 329 establishes a "self-certification" process under which each manufacturer is responsible for certifying that its products meet all applicable safety standards.

One of the standards established by NHTSA, Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection (49 CFR 571.208) requires some type of occupant protection system to be installed at all designated seating positions in all passenger cars. Different installation requirements apply depending on the seating position within the vehicle and the date of manufacture.

For passenger cars manufactured on or after September 1, 1989, but before September 1, 1996, Standard No. 208 requires automatic crash protection at every front outboard seating position.

Automatic crash protection systems protect their occupants by means that require no action by vehicle occupants. Compliance with the automatic crash protection requirements of Standard No. 208 is determined in a dynamic crash test. That is, a vehicle must comply with specified injury criteria, as measured on a test dummy, in a 30 mph barrier crash test. The two types of automatic crash protection used to satisfy this requirement are automatic safety belts (which help to assure belt use) and air bags (which supplement safety belts and offer some protection even when safety belts are not used). For passenger cars manufactured on or after September 1, 1996 and before September 1, 1997, 95 percent of a manufacturer's production must have air bags at the forward outboard seating positions.

Trucks and multipurpose passenger vehicles (with a GVWR of 8,500 pounds or less)manufactured after September 1, 1994 and before September 1, 1997 are required to provide either automatic crash protection or safety belts at the front outboard seating position. During this period, manufacturers must equip certain percentages of their vehicles with automatic crash protection systems. However, section S4.2 of 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. 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.

In general, repair businesses are permitted to modify vehicles without obtaining permission from the NHTSA to do so, but are subject to certain regulatory limits on the type of modifications they may make. 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 penalties of up to $1,100 per violation.

Removing a seat, and replacing the seat belts for the seat with a wheelchair tiedown and restraint system, 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.

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 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 wheelchair tiedown and restraint system, it is critical that the modifier ensure that the driver's wheelchair will be solidly anchored in its new location. In addition, you should consult with the manufacturer to determine how to deactivate the air bag. 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 does not contain enough information to indicate conclusively whether your situation falls within the exclusion for vehicles manufactured for operation by persons with disabilities found in Standard No. 208. However, you may nonetheless rely on non-enforcement of the "make inoperative" prohibition for the reasons I described above.

If you have other questions or need some additional information, please contact Otto Matheke of my staff at this address or by phone at (202) 366-5253.

John Womack
Acting Chief Counsel