Mr. Brent Gruenig
Crow River Industries
850 State Highway 55
P.O. Box 70
Brooten, MN 56316
Dear Mr. Gruenig:
This is in response to your letter regarding a seating system which Crow River Industries is developing for the purpose of adapting vehicles for use by less-abled individuals. As described in your letter, the seat rotates on a pivot, allowing the seat to face out of the car, and two sets of slide tracks. One set of slide tracks is used for adjustment in the vehicle. The second set of slide tracks is used for exiting the vehicle after rotation. You are concerned about the legal implications of this design. In particular, you state that you understand that Crow River Industries cannot "make the vehicle inoperable or 'out of specification' with the replacement of the OEM seat with our seat." You wish to know what exactly is "out of specification."
I am pleased to have this opportunity to explain our regulations to you. Some background information on Federal motor vehicle safety laws and regulations may be helpful. Our agency is authorized under 49 U.S.C. 30101 et seq. to issue safety standards applicable to new motor vehicles and items of motor vehicle equipment. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), however, does not approve motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment, nor do we endorse any commercial products. Instead, each manufacturer is responsible for "self-certifying" that its products meet all applicable safety standards.
NHTSA has exercised its authority to establish five safety standards that may be relevant to your seat design. The first is Standard No. 207, Seating Systems, which sets forth strength requirements for all "occupant seats" in passenger cars. The second is Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection, which sets forth requirements for occupant protection at the various seating positions in vehicles. The third is Standard No. 209, Seat Belt Assemblies, which sets forth strength, elongation, webbing width, durability, and other requirements for seat belt assemblies. The fourth is Standard No. 210, Seat Belt Assembly Anchorages, which establishes strength and location requirements for seat belt anchorages. The final relevant safety standard is Standard No. 302, Flammability of Interior Materials. This standard specifies burn resistance requirements for materials used in the occupant compartment of motor vehicles.
Because Federal law operates differently depending on when the installation of the seat occurs, I will separately discuss three possible scenarios.
Installation as Original Equipment
Standards No. 207, No. 208, No. 210, and No. 302 apply, with certain exceptions that are not relevant to your product, to vehicles and not directly to items of equipment. Thus, the vehicle manufacturer, and not the equipment manufacturer, would be responsible for certifying that the vehicle complies with these standards with the adaptive seat installed in the vehicle.
Installation Prior to First Sale
If an adaptive seat were added to a new vehicle prior to its first sale, e.g., by the dealer, the person who modified 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.
Installation After First Sale
After the first purchase of a vehicle for purposes other than resale, the only provision in Federal law that affects the vehicle's continuing compliance with an applicable safety standard is set forth in 49 U.S.C. 30122. That section provides that:
A manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business may not knowingly make inoperative any part of a device or element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment in compliance with an applicable motor vehicle safety 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 installed in compliance with an applicable safety standard. Any violation of this prohibition is subject to a potential civil penalty of up to $1,100 for each violation.
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 a company believes 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, it 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 it is not possible to avoid violating that provision. It should also demonstrate that the 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 has been helpful. If you have any other questions or need some additional information in this area, please contact Otto Matheke of my staff at this address or by phone at(202) 366-5253.
Acting Chief Counsel