Ms. Connie L. Stauffer
Lift-Aids, Inc.June 2, 1998
2381 Pecan Court
Fort Worth, TX 76117

Dear Ms. Stauffer:

This responds to your request for a letter stating that the agency will not enforce the "make inoperative" provision against you for modifying a Ford Windstar Minivan to accommodate your client who has a disability. I apologize for the delay in my response. In your letter, you stated that you need to replace the vehicle's original steering column and air bag with a horizontal steering column and steering control manufactured by Drive Master Corporation to accommodate your client who suffers from the disability "osteogenesis imperfecta," more commonly known as brittle bone disease. You explained that, due to her disability, your client is very small in stature and has limited mobility.

This letter provides the relief you seek. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 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 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. After the first sale of the 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.

Removing the original steering column and replacing it with a horizontal steering column could affect compliance with three standards: Standard No. 203, Impact protection for the driver from the steering control system, Standard No. 204, Steering control rearward displacement, and Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection. For example, Standard No. 208 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 steering wheel and the driver's 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 column 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. 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.

John Womack
Acting Chief Counsel