Fine My Ride....
Custom Rims, Yes; TV in Steering Wheel, No
By DANNY HAKIM
Published: December 30, 2004
ETROIT, Dec. 29 - Pimp the ride, pay the price.
In the first of what is expected to be a broader crackdown against auto customization shops, federal regulators on Wednesday imposed a $16,000 fine on West Coast Customs, the auto body shop affiliated with "Pimp My Ride," an MTV reality show that makes over rundown cars.
The shop, which has customized sport utility vehicles for customers like Shaquille O'Neal, was fined for removing front air bags in cars to install video screens in steering wheels.
Another celebrity shop, Unique Autosports in Uniondale, N.Y., was fined $5,000 for a similar offense. A reality show featuring the shop, to be called "Unique Whips," will be shown on the Speed Channel, a cable automotive channel, in February.
Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the fines were the first of what was expected to be a larger crackdown on car customizers who were disabling safety equipment.
Regulators have noticed that front-seat video screens have become one offshoot of the car customization boom. While the safety agency does not have jurisdiction over installing video monitors in cars and trucks after they have been manufactured, they do have jurisdiction over tampering with safety equipment such as air bags.
"We're actively pursuing several others," Mr. Tyson said, "It's not only a bad idea to disable the air bag, it's against the law. Air bags are there for a purpose, to protect you. If you have a DVD player there instead of an air bag, it's not going to protect you in a crash."
Calls to West Coast Customs, of Inglewood, Calif., were not returned. Will Castro, the proprietor of Unique Autosports, said, "I have no comment."
Mr. Castro has done customization work for stars ranging from the entertainer Jennifer Lopez to the rap artist Eminem, according to a recent news release from the Speed Channel.
Employees of West Coast Customs are regularly featured on "Pimp My Ride" performing automotive miracle work, and seven of them are profiled on MTV's Web site.
Most states have laws against watching televisions in the front seat, though many of the laws have not been updated to include DVD players and other new technologies. New York law prohibits cars from being "equipped with a television receiving set within view of the operator." But an updated California law that took effect in January bans most video functions in the front seat, including DVD players, with the exception of such technologies as navigation systems.
Automakers often install video screens for passengers in the front seat, but only features like navigation systems or stereos can typically be operated while the car is in motion, though the proliferation of electronic controls in luxury cars is also the focus of scrutiny by safety researchers.
"We know that all kinds of distractions can be a problem, but it would be hard to think of something more distracting than watching a video while you're driving," said Anne McCartt, a vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a group financed by car insurers. "It's a really worrisome trend."
She said swapping an air bag for a video screen was even more disturbing.
"It's taking out a safety device that has proven lifesaving benefits," Ms. McCartt said, "and replacing it with something that could clearly be distracting and potentially dangerous."
In recent years, car customization has becoming a booming business, and TV shows chronicling cool cars and car makeovers have proliferated, including "Overhaulin' " on TLC and "Ride with Funkmaster Flex" on Spike TV. Over the last decade, annual spending on after-market car parts and accessories has doubled to $28.9 billion a year, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association.
"Pimp My Ride" on MTV - with its host, Alvin Joiner, a Detroit native better known as the rapper Xzibit - is a feel-good show in which 18- to 22-year-olds are invited to submit their dilapidated cars or trucks for a major retrofit by West Coast Customs.
In one episode, for instance, a sad-looking 1989 Ford Mustang was remade to include a photo booth built into the passenger side with a camera in the visor and a printer in the center armrest.
Safety investigators, however, were drawn to West Coast Customs not by something that occurred on the MTV program but by an advertisement on the shop's Web site.
"There's nothing wrong with customization," said Mr. Tyson, of the traffic agency, "as long as you don't disable safety equipment."
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