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Vehicle Modifiers of Wheelchair Accessible Vans, Cars, and Vehicles for the Physically Disabled, Paraplegics, and Quadriplegics



The Law

Let's put down the wrenches for a bit and talk a little about what allows a vehicle modifier or mechanic to take a standard car and perform what sometimes amount to serious structural and control adaptations in order to make it drivable and accessible for someone in a wheelchair.    For instance, there are high tech driving control systems that allow a quadriplegic to drive using a joystick.  On one hand that is really cool but on the other hand it's completely different from how 99.99% of cars on the road are designed to be driven.  Some people would naturally ask, "Is that even legal?"  Here's another question related to a more common adaptation- the drop floor conversion, "What is it that allows a vehicle alterer or modifier to take a standard minivan, gut it, cut it apart, and weld it back together and put it back on the road with the rest of the thousands of other vehicles out there?"  Many years ago, a lot of wheelchair van conversions were done at a local shop that most likely performed wheelchair van conversions and accessibility modifications on the side.  The client would bring their standard unmodified vehicle into the shop and it would come out on the other end wheelchair accessible.  A lot of the work was done using local shop knowledge and trial and error experience.  A problem was presented and the shop did whatever they had to do to solve the problem so that the consumer could use their van with their wheelchair.  Wheelchair van conversions were a very unregulated industry at that point in time and NHTSA had essentially given permission for shops and repair facilities to use their best judgment to make vans wheelchair accessible for their disabled clients.  Some background that is important to know is that federal regulations make it illegal for a modifier or mechanic to take a vehicle out of compliance with a federal motor vehicle safety standard or FMVSS.  This is called the "Make Inoperative Prohibition".  An FMVSS is a federal law that stipulates how components or systems in a vehicle will be designed, built, and tested.  All new cars sold in this country must pass all applicable FMVSS and there are many FMVSS that a car must pass ranging from rearview mirror design to frontal crash testing that a vehicle must pass.  Say for instance that a typical person wants to put in a different seat in their van.  They take their van to a shop to complete the work.  The shop must ensure that the replacement seat and the final installation meets the various safety standards such as FMVSS 207 & FMVSS 210 that the car was built to meet.  If the seat doesn't meet those standards, then it is ILLEGAL for the shop to do the modification.  So you can't take your car to a shop and say "Put in this seat that I made from wood in my workshop!"  They (if they are smart) won't do it because it is illegal for them to do so.  Now you're probably thinking that people do all sorts of things to their own cars and that can't be illegal, can it?  You'd be right for the most part.  The vast majority of modifications that the typical car owner performs are not covered by an FMVSS, the modifications themselves wouldn't take the vehicle out of compliance with an FMVSS, or the owner performs the modifications themselves. 

Note: The make inoperative prohibition (and so the exemptions) do not apply to individuals modifying their own vehicles, as long as they do not intend to make the changes for the purpose of resale. If the vehicle owner is making a modification to their own vehicle, Federal law does not apply, so you can do whatever you want (subject to any restrictions your state/local government may impose and you never sell the car). However, NHTSA urges individuals making such modifications to avoid unnecessary elimination of safety features.  So if you can handle a wrench and do the work yourself, i.e. not have to take it to a shop, then you can do all sorts of things to your own car.  Of course, just because you can doesn't mean you should.

The NHTSA fines would also be trivial to some repair shops even if they performed these "illegal" modifications.  The real legal enforcer is the court system and the shop exposure to liability in the event of an accident.  So knowing that background, shops were routinely taking vans out of compliance to meet the needs of their disabled customers.  Even something as routine as taking a car seat out so that a person can use that space to ride in the vehicle sitting in their wheelchair takes the vehicle out of FMVSS compliance assuming someone will ride in that space.  I don't know if it came about due to a series of wheelchair van accidents or just the fear of the unknown (and what modifications were being done "in the shadows" in the name of wheelchair accessibility), but in 2001, NHTSA issued 49CFR595 Make Inoperative Exemption which allowed used vehicles to be modified for people with disabilities.  In the course of modifying a vehicle for use by a person with a physical disability, the modifier is allowed to take the vehicle out of compliance with specific portions of the safety standards authorized by 49CFR595.  This is not a broad generic exemption.  Only those specific portions of the FMVSS listed in 49CFR595 are allowed to legally be exempted.  The doors were formally shut on an "anything goes" industry.  The company performing the modifications must work on used (not new) vehicles, must register with NHTSA, must inform the owner in writing about any FMVSS exemptions taken, and must inform the owner if the vehicle's cargo carrying capacity was reduced by 220lbs or more in the course of the modification.   Despite these laws, the enforcement part of the regulation is lacking.  You'll still find shops that aren't registered with NHTSA and wouldn't know what a FMVSS is much less an exemption if it came up and bit them.  It isn't as if there are NHTSA enforcement agents going from shop to shop to make sure everything is kosher.  The industry is largely self regulating and NMEDA and manufacturers such as Braun have done a lot for this.  NHTSA does oversee vehicle safety regarding vehicle modifications but not on a day to day basis.  Their biggest contribution besides the FMVSS themselves are in issuing legal interpretations regarding specific points of the law.  Again this goes back to the real enforcer in the program, liability in the courts.  Modifiers cannot hide behind the "I didn't know" or "I was only trying to help" when NHTSA has laws on the books and interpretations in black and white. 

  NHTSA logo






The Wheelchair Accessible Modifier

A "modifier", as the term is commonly used in the industry to mean a business making vehicles accessible to persons with disabilities.  A modifier is considered a "repair business" by NHTSA.  A motor vehicle repair businesses means a person or business holding itself out to the public to repair for compensation a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment.  This term includes businesses that receive compensation for servicing vehicles without malfunctioning or broken parts or systems by adding or removing features or components to or from those vehicles or otherwise customizing those vehicles.  It might surprise you to know that a lot of vehicle modifiers are not car mechanics who repair regular cars for a living.  A modifier can install lifts, hand controls and other wheelchair accessible adaptations but you wouldn't take your car into the modifier facility for repair or maintenance to the base vehicle.  Both types of work deal with cars, but they are different skill sets and require different types of knowledge. 

It's important to keep the terms straight when talking about a "modifier" because each term carries legal responsibilities which we'll explain further when we discuss an "alterer".  A Modifier must work on used (after the first retail sale) vehicles and must register with NHTSA as a vehicle modifier to accommodate people with disabilities.  All registered businesses and individuals are listed on the NHTSA web site, http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/rules/adaptive/Modifier/Index.cfm.  If the shop you are working with is not registered then that should throw up a red flag.  You should at least be given a copy of the letter they submitted to NHTSA to become registered as a modifier.  It shouldn't have today's date on the letter.  The modifier must inform the owner in writing about any FMVSS exemptions taken and must inform the owner if the vehicle's cargo carrying capacity was reduced by 220lbs or more in the course of the modification.  There are also labeling and recording keeping requirements for the modifier to adhere to:

Labeling -  the modifier must affix a permanent label next to the original or alterer's certification label that:

Record keeping - modifiers must prepare written documentation that:

A copy of the documents must be given to the vehicle owner and the modifier must keep a copy of the records for 5 years. 

Are you getting the point that a good vehicle modifier has to be much more than just a good mechanic?  I hope the answer is yes.  If I had to list attributes that a modifier must have, they would be:


The Wheelchair Accessible Alterer

An alterer is a person or business making changes to a certified vehicle. These changes do not include the addition, substitution, or removal of readily attachable components, such as mirrors or tire and rim assemblies. Nor do they include minor finishing operations such as painting. "Alterer" also means a person or business who alters a certified vehicle in such a manner that its stated weight ratings are no longer valid. All of these changes are made before the first purchase of the vehicle in good faith for purposes other than resale.  So when Braun performs a drop floor wheelchair conversion to a new minivan to send out for dealer stock, they are doing so as an alterer.  Braun also converts used minivans.  In that role, they are performing the conversion as a "modifier" and not as an "alterer" because the vehicle has been previously sold, is used, and the legal code applicable to alterers no longer applies.  I'm not saying Braun's process is any different in either scenario.  They use the same techniques and methods to convert either minivan.  But, the legal requirements and the liability implications are much different.  New vehicles (prior to first retail sale) CANNOT be modified by taking a "Make Inoperative Exemption".  The converted new minivan must meet all FMVSS and is performed by an "alterer" and not a "modifier".  The liability for meeting all FMVSS testing and requirements rests with the alterer.  Now suppose I take a used vehicle to another vehicle converter that only sells used conversion wheelchair minivans.  They are allowed to make use of the "Make Inoperative Exemption" which would prevent them from having to perform certain safety testing and carry the liability of such certification.  As opposed to an alterer who must ensure the finished wheelchair conversion minivan must meet all FMVSS, the requirements for a modifier are much less.  So let's say that the vehicle converter who is working on my used minivan wheelchair conversion takes the "Make Inoperative Exemption".  Is that really better for me the consumer as opposed to having the work performed by an alterer?  If they're using the "Make Inoperative Exemption" to simply avoid crash testing, then I think the answer is clearly no.  So when a company selling a used vehicle wheelchair conversion says that they meet all required federal laws, that can mean something different than what it implies. 

The Dealer/Modifier - Work with a NMEDA QAP dealer

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