A long time coming, Federal Motor Vehicle Standards (FMVSS) 403 and 404 — concerning wheelchair platform lifts and the automotive vehicles that use them — finally went into effect last July. How is the adaptive automotive equipment industry, from manufacturers to dealers to consumers, responding?
What Are FMVSS 403 & 404?
So what exactly are 403 and 404? FMVSS 403 “establishes requirements for platform lifts that are designed to carry passengers who rely on wheelchairs, scooters, canes and other mobility aid devices in entering and exiting motor vehicles,” according to the final National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rule published in December 2002.
FMVSS 404 “establishes requirements for vehicles equipped with platform lifts,” according to that same final rule.
Together, the two standards affect both privately owned automotive vehicles, such as family vans and minivans, as well as automotive vehicles designed for commercial uses, such as school and public buses. Wheelchair and scooter lifts designed to carry only the mobility device, but not the end-user — so the wheelchair/scooter is unoccupied as it’s being lifted into the van or bus — are not covered by the standards.
In summary, FMVSS 403 requires the following additional safety features and design elements on passenger-and-wheelchair lifts:
- Threshold warning signal
- Retaining barriers
- Interlocks (“to prevent accidental movement of a lift and the vehicle on which a lift is installed”)
- Minimum platform dimensions
- Maximum size limits for platform protrusions and gaps between the platform and the vehicle floor or ground
FMVSS 404 requires vehicles to use FMVSS 403-compliant lifts that are installed according to manufacturer instructions, and that commercial vehicles use lifts with certain size and cyclic-load requirements, since such lifts are likely to see a greater range of users than wheelchair/scooter lifts owned by an individual.
NHTSA — invited to comment for this article specifically about the question of FMVSS enforcement — provided the following Web site link to the Federal Register and its publication of the final rule: www.nhtsa.dot.gov/portal/site/nhtsa/menuitem.13d6623f3a51528891e67a1090008a0c.
The standards were due to go into effect on Dec. 27, 2004, giving the mobility industry a two-year lead time, but an extension moved the effective date to July 1, 2005.
403/404 Side Effects?
The impact of FMVSS 403 and 404 was, of course, significant and felt on several different levels.
First, lift manufacturers had to develop and engineer new, compliant products and bring them to market. Manufacturers of ancillary products — such as now-required interlocks — had to develop new versions that would fit the personal-use wheelchair lift market.
If manufacturers — as the ones who had to now offer newly compliant equipment — were on the leading edge of response to 403/404, then dealers were in the second wave. Dealers had two duties: taking care of their own businesses (i.e., learning about and stocking the new equipment, training salespeople and techs, etc.); and breaking the news to consumers. As the one-year anniversary of the new standards approaches, how are dealers faring on both of these big tasks?
Vantage Mobility International’s (VMI) Zach Schroeck says, “For the vast majority of our dealers, it’s become a way of life. We had to be compliant, and we offer the lift compliant with the interlock. The fact that it has to be done — the dealers have accepted that and gone to work on it.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that everyone welcomed the change. Says Braun’s Joe Garnett, “From the dealers’ perspective, it’s hardly been a welcome change. Before FMVSS, they were very familiar with the current lifts on the market, and had become experts at installing, operating, maintaining and servicing these lifts.” That changed when 403/404 came along. “With the implementation of FMVSS 403/404, sweeping changes were made to the entire lift line,” Garnett explains. “Some lift models, such as our Swing-A-Way lift, were discontinued because they could not meet the new requirements in a cost-effective way. The new specifications created more complex lifts. These changes and situations created a lot of frustration for the dealers and their customers, as it required an entirely new learning curve.”
Schroeck agrees; he started with VMI nearly a year ago, as the new standards were taking effect. “I wouldn’t say it’s been a smooth transition, because there was a bit of a learning curve there, with all the extra wire harnesses involved in setting up the interlock and having to make sure that the threshold warning systems are functioning properly. And then (dealers) have to educate the consumers on the use of the features. But at this point, I would say it’s really become a way of life, and it’s accepted.”
Marc Ellison of Intermotive Vehicle Controls, who manufactures the interlock now required for compliant lifts, calls dealer response “very good.” He prefaces his comments by pointing out that Intermotive has a somewhat different perspective, since it is involved in a specific piece of the lift’s functionality and not necessarily the entire picture, as Braun and VMI would be. But he still says, “Most of them understand that they have to do this, they’re trying to learn what they need to do and what they need to do to install a lift interlock. What we’ve seen from the dealer side is that there have been people who used to do their own interlocks, and there has been a migration. They’re saying, ‘I don’t want to get involved in that anymore. Now that it’s mandated by NHTSA, I’d rather not have to worry about that. I’d rather just buy the interlock.’ So we’ve seen customers come to us who used to make their own. And I think part of that (change of heart) is the complexity and the regulations and implied liability along with that regulation. They’re saying, ‘I’d rather just install it the way (the manufacturer) tells me to.'”
That dealer migration has meant new business for Intermotive, Ellison says, along with the need for newly engineered products and marketing. “There’s a new customer base, and it’s a much more diverse customer base,” he says. “On the commercial bus side, we used to sell to maybe 10 different customers. When 403 hit, now all of a sudden there are hundreds of potential lift installers out there. Now we’re dealing with smaller shops that may only install a lift or two a week.”
For those smaller mobility dealers, especially, the new standards have probably been a burden, says Ricon’s Bill Hinze. “From a dealer point of view, I think (403/404) have made life a lot more complicated for him. He has to learn a completely new system from scratch and in this industry, a lot of people don’t spend a lot of time and money on training, because it’s a small, mom-and-pop type of industry in a lot of cases. It’s two or three people in the business, and they don’t have a lot of time to run off to Indiana or California for training classes on how the new lifts work. So they fumble along and spend a lot of hours on the phone and try to figure it out as they go. Those are some of the things I think you’ll find they’ve experienced, if you talk to dealers.”
What One NMEDA Dealer Thinks of 403/404
Getting the Word Out to Consumers
If mobility dealers have learned and incorporated their 403/404 responsibilities, consumer education seems to be more of an ongoing matter… especially for consumers who are repeat customers. Schroeck notes, “If (the customer) comes in today and is new to these products, then you explain when they pick up their vehicle, ‘Well, you have to have the parking brake on, your vehicle has to be in park in order to operate the interlock, and in order for the lift to operate. So there’s just a little bit of training there, helping them to understand how the system works and what it does for them. You explain that it’s there as a safety feature.”
Indeed, dealers will undoubtedly have an easier time explaining the situation to new customers. “Because the market is growing so fast, many of our consumers are first-time buyers,” Garnett says. “Since they are new to the mobility industry, they aren’t familiar with the products manufactured before April 2005. As with all of the customers, the dealer takes the extra time to educate them on all details of the lift. The new standard isn’t much of an issue from the new customer perspective.”
The story can be different, of course, for long-time consumers who can remember a time before such mandatory features — and the added costs. “If you’ve had lifts before and you get a new lift and now the dealer’s telling them that (the lift) has to have these extra features on it — then there can be a little bit of friction there sometimes,” Schroeck admits. “But I think on the whole, it’s a pretty easy thing to explain to the end-user, and if the end-user has an issue with it, you explain that it’s for their safety. I think that really helps smooth things over.” Schroeck adds that VMI’s technical and sales training offerings for dealers includes instruction on how to explain the interlock and its function to customers. “We don’t do a lot of direct-to-end-user communication on these things, but we give the dealers the tools to be able to communicate that to the end-user,” he says.
“Customers that have used lifts in the past, in most cases, were not aware of the FMVSS requirements,” Garnett says. “Thus they don’t fully understand all of the changes that have been made to the new lifts and why it was done. As would be expected, they’re asking a lot of questions. That’s why it is so important for us to emphasize training with our dealers. Our dealers need to be the industry experts and pass this information to the consumer. The more resources we apply to educating our dealer network, the more information will be presented to our customer.”
Braun has significantly stepped up its educational programs accordingly, Garnett says. “When we introduced the new compliant lifts in 2005, we also held a record number of training classes. Last year Braun trained 68 percent more technicians than in 2004. And we’re planning even more classes in 2006. With the added schedule, we should have another substantial increase in Braun-trained technicians. As much as we’re trying, there are still technicians that need more education.”
As for the question of how dealers should handle consumers who want to circumvent the new standards and ask dealers for older lifts — perhaps also implying that they will take their business elsewhere should the dealer refuse — Schroeck says, “There has been some of that, especially with the extra complexity added with these systems. This is a generic example, but let’s say that a consumer had a lift installed with the interlock and had some sort of issue — some part that wasn’t functioning correctly. Then they get upset (and say), ‘Hey, my lift works — I don’t need (the interlock). I don’t want to deal with this.’ They get the perception that this is just one more thing that can break. But our stance, of course, is that we follow the compliance to the letter. If a dealer is talking about doing that, we don’t recommend it. We don’t control the dealer base and they have their businesses to run as well, but we can’t tell somebody that we’ll give them a non-compliant lift. There’s no way around it. If they have an older vehicle and have a lift without the interlock, then of course they can keep driving that vehicle. But as soon as they get into a new one, they’re going to have to have a compliant vehicle. It definitely makes more sense for all of us, the dealers and the manufacturers, to be compliant because then we don’t have those liability issues down the road, and the end-user is better off as well.”
Ellison says he has heard similar questions from dealers during educational sessions: “(Dealers) understand what they need to do, but I think there has been some discussions around, ‘I know what the law says, but what does this really mean for me?’ An example being, ‘I have a vehicle that doesn’t have to comply with the law because of its age. But do I have a responsibility to advise the customer of all their options so that they don’t have a problem later on?’ So the customer doesn’t later say, ‘You knew there was safer technology, but you sold me something that doesn’t meet the requirements. I know (the equipment) didn’t have to meet those requirements… but now I’ve got a problem.'”
And Ellison says product and technical education could still be helpful, even though he believes dealers generally know and understand the legal requirements of FMVSS 403 and 404. “The lifts, components and interlocks are all more complicated,” he says. “It all tends to be electronic based. So I believe there could be more education from the standpoint of technical knowledge.”
As to the final impression of 403/404, whether they will be judged as a help or a headache, Hinze believes the debate will continue. “From a safety or value point of view, the additional requirements — people probably have different opinions about them. Some may think they’re the greatest things in the world, and to some extent they all are potentially useful.”
For instance, Hinze says, “In the bus industry, (the interlock system) should absolutely be there; it has been in commercial buses for 20 years, (but) school buses never required it, which is mind-boggling to me, because I sell 10 or 20 new lifts every year because some school bus driver drives down the road and rips the top off a new Jaguar and hits a light pole and tears the lift out of the bus (because the lift is deployed while the bus is moving)… it’s easy to become distracted while running around and tying kids down and taking care of a bunch of kids in a bus. You could possibly forget that you hadn’t closed the lift up.
“But in a private van, you’re not going to do that. For a private individual driving his own van, the chances of him driving away with the lift left out and the doors open is relatively small. It’s probably an extra-cost item that is unnecessary for the personal market and it makes things more complicated… if all the switching and all the sensors aren’t in sync and the moon isn’t aligned properly, the vehicle doesn’t move. And if you’re in a blizzard in Michigan when that happens, it isn’t going to be a good thing.”
Does that mean — possibly — that we may see some evolution of 403/404?
“There certainly is a big downside to some of these features that are going to end up causing more problems than they solve,” Hinze says. “And they may end up changing down the road.”
What One NMEDA Dealer Thinks of 403/404
None of them (customers) are very happy about it, because what it means is several thousand dollars more they have to spend that they didn’t have to spend before. Most of the customers are not even aware of NHTSA being involved in the wheelchair lifts now; they have no idea that if they wreck their vehicle that — up until they decided to back off on the enforcement — that we weren’t able to transfer their old lift to a new van. So it’s a rude awakening for a lot of them
Mainly what it comes down to is the money. It’s got a lot of them upset. Most of them aren’t very happy about the government involved in the wheelchair business and modified vehicles to transport disabled people anyway. They ask, “What’s the problem?” and we say, “They just changed it, and this is the way you have to have it done.”
It hasn’t actually cost us any business yet, but we sure gave out the e-mail address of the people in charge of this. The government is doing this to enforce standards, but they’re adding thousands of dollars to people’s modifications, and a lot of time you’re talking about disabled people on fixed incomes. They don’t have the extra thousands of dollars. It’s only a matter of time — if (NHTSA tries) to enforce this any stronger — it’s going to basically backfire. (NHTSA) wants everyone who does this to be certified, but Bubba’s going to be doing this in the backyard. It’ll come to that. And people like us who have to spend money to be certified are going to be losing business.
The government is trying to bring the quality level up, but it’s going to spike. (Using unqualified, non-certified persons to do the work) is going to save (consumers) thousands of dollars, and since they didn’t have a problem with it before, they don’t anticipate having a problem with it now. We’ve already seen people that have come in (after) having someone else (installs) the lift, and it’s pretty disturbing when you see non-graded bolts holding lifts in. We’ve definitely seen it happen a whole lot more than before the rules and regulations started. —Darrell Frank, general manager, Lift-Aids, Inc., Euless, Texas
403/404 Side Effects?
Q: In order to avoid 403/404, will consumers elect to buy wheelchair/scooter lifts that do not carry passengers?
I haven’t noticed that specifically. We have seen what seems like more and more customers coming our way as our solutions get better… anytime you can stay away from the big conversion van and stay in your own vehicle, or at least a more mainstream minivan versus a converted van, I think the better. —Chad Williams, Harmar Mobility