Mr. Roger Gangitano
Nationwide Wheelchair Lift
1536 Cypress Avenue
Melbourne, FL 32935
Dear Mr. Gangitano:
This responds to your letter requesting "blanket approval" to remove the air bag sensor and disable the air bag system in all vehicles modified to be driven by a person with a disability in which the location of the vehicle's air bag sensor interferes with the installation of a power seat base. I regret the delay in responding. As explained below, our answer is we will not grant "blanket approval" to remove the sensor and disable the air bag system each time the installation of a power seat base requires removing the air bag sensor.
You explained that modifying a van to accommodate a person with a disability often necessitates the installation of a six or eight way power driver seat base. You stated that most vehicles could be fitted with a power seat base that did not interfere with the air bag sensor located beneath the driver's seat. However, you stated that the installation of a power seat base in certain vehicles, in particular the 1997 Chevy Astro or 1997 GMC Safari, required removal of the air bag sensor. Consequently, you explained that you would require the agency's authorization to remove the air bag sensor and disable the air bag system each time you needed to install a power seat base. You requested "blanket approval" for such situations so that you would not have to request authorization each time you must remove the air bag sensor to install a power seat base for a customer with a disability.
We would like to begin by explaining that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (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. 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 (49 U.S.C. 30122) would require 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 standard. Violations of this prohibition are punishable by civil fines up to $1,100 per violation.
There is no procedure by which modifiers or repair businesses petition for and are granted permission from NHTSA to modify a motor vehicle. Modifiers are permitted to modify vehicles without obtaining permission from NHTSA to do so, but are subject to the make inoperative provision of 49 U.S.C. 30122. 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. We have always done this on an individual, case by case basis.
In situations such as the one you describe where a vehicle must be modified to accommodate the needs of a particular disability, we have been willing to consider any violation of the "make inoperative" provision a purely technical one justified by public need. The agency has issued letters stating that it would not institute enforcement proceedings against a repair business that modified a vehicle to accommodate a particular person's disability. Although we understand your desire to avoid writing to the agency each time you need to install a power seat base in a vehicle where the location of the air bag sensor is incompatible with the power seat base, we will not grant blanket approval at this time for such a modification.
We do note, however, that the agency is working on a proposal to regulate the aftermarket modification of vehicles for persons with disabilities by setting out exemptions from the make inoperative prohibition only for certain standards, including Standard 208, and under certain conditions. In place of the agency's current approach where each request for exemption from the make inoperative prohibition is reviewed case-by-case, this proposal would give clear guidance to modifiers about principles to follow when considering vehicle modifications to accommodate someone's disabilities. We intend to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking shortly.
I hope this information has been helpful. If you have any other questions or need some additional information in this area, please contact Nicole Fradette of my staff at this address or by phone at (202) 366-2992.
Acting Chief Counsel