Mr. Jurgen Babirad
Rehabilitation Technology Associates, Inc.
P.O. Box 540
Kinderhook, NY 12106
Dear Mr. Babirad:
This responds to your letter requesting information regarding the modification of a 1997 Ford E150 van for a driver with quadriplegia secondary to a spinal cord injury. Specifically, you request a waiver of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208, Occupant Crash Protection, as the modifications proposed for this particular vehicle will require replacing the original equipment manufacturer's (OEM) steering wheel with a smaller steering wheel. The new steering wheel would be too small to be fitted with an air bag. You explained that the smaller steering wheel is needed to accommodate the driver's limited range of motion. I regret the delay in my response.
While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) cannot provide the specific relief you seek, since we are not authorized to grant waivers of safety standards under these circumstances, we can assure you that we will not institute enforcement proceedings against a commercial entity that modifies the steering wheel and column on a vehicle to accommodate the condition you described.
We would like to begin by explaining that 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. After the first sale of a vehicle, 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) requires 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 penalties of up to $1,100 per violation.
There is no procedure by which businesses petition for and are granted permission from NHTSA to modify a motor vehicle. Businesses 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 business which cannot conform to our requirements when making modifications to accommodate the special needs of persons with disabilities.
Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection, requires vehicles to be equipped with specific manual and automatic restraint systems (e.g. seat belts and air bags) and to meet specified injury criteria during a test. Removing the original steering wheel and air bag and replacing it with a smaller steering wheel that lacks an air bag would affect the vehicle's compliance with Standard No. 208. 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 violations of the "make inoperative" prohibition to be justified by public need. As I have already noted above, NHTSA will not institute enforcement proceedings against a business that modifies the steering wheel and air bag to accommodate the condition you describe.
We caution, however, that only necessary modifications should be made. In addition, you should consult with the manufacturer to determine how to disarm the air bag. The manufacturer should be able to provide information on how the modification can be safely performed. We are enclosing a warning label stating that the air bag has been deactivated. For the safety of everyone who may ride in the vehicle, we ask that you affix this label on the sun visor above the deactivated air bag. Finally, if the vehicle is sold, we urge the owner to advise the purchaser that the vehicle has been modified and consider reinstalling the removed safety equipment if appropriate.
If you have other questions or require additional information, please contact Nicole Fradette of my staff at this address or by phone at (202) 366-2992.
Acting Chief Counsel