Janet Lee

Janet Lee
Photo:Janet Lee, injured by a taxi partition.

Monday, May 06, 2013

USDOT Chief Counsel Letter of Clarification

US Department
Of Transportation
National Highway
Traffic Safety
400 Seventh Street S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20590
SEP I 3 1985
Mr. Steven W. Crowell
29 Mansfield Street
Allston, MA  02134
Dear Mr. Crowell:
Thank you for your March 8, 1985 letter to Mr. Stephen Oesch of this office asking several questions concerning the Federal motor vehicle safety standards issued by this agency.  I sincerely regret the delay in responding to your letter; however, I hope the following discussion will be of assistance to you.
You first asked whether our safety standards apply to auxiliary interior equipment installed in motor vehicles.  The answer is yes.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Act authorizes this agency to issue safety standards for new motor vehicles and equipment (§103), prohibits the sale or manufacture of new vehicles and equipment which do not meet those standards (§108(a)(1)(A)), establishes civil penalties for non-complying vehicles and equipment (§109(a)), and requires manufacturers to recall and remedy any non-compliances (§154(a)).   A copy of the Act is enclosed for your information.
In addition, the Act requires certification of compliance with applicable safety standards (§114).  This requirement applies to manufacturers of equipment, with regard to those items of equipment, and to vehicle manufacturers, with regard to the entire vehicle.  Thus, if auxiliary interior equipment is installed in a vehicle prior to first sale, the equipment manufacturer must certify compliance with any safety standards applicable to the item of equipment, and the vehicle manufacturer must certify that the entire vehicle (including items of equipment) complies with all applicable standards.
You also asked specifically about the applicability of certain safety standards to interior partitions:  Standard No. 107, Reflecting Surfaces, No. 111, Rearview Mirrors, No. 201, Occupant Protection in Interior Impact (dashboards and seatbacks), No. 205, glazing Materials (windows), and No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection (safety belts and other restraint systems). Only Standard No. 205 directly applies to interior partitions.  However a vehicle manufacturer must certify that its vehicles comply with applicable safety standards, even if an interior partition or other auxiliary equipment is installed.  For example, Standard No. 111 requires that a rearview mirror provide a minimum field of view for a driver.  If the rearview mirror does not provide that field of view (due to an interior partition or any other reason), the Standard requires an outside rearview mirror.  Each
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safety standard describes the types of vehicles and equipment systems to which it applies; copies of Standards No. 107, 111, 201, 205 and 208 are also enclosed for your information.
The safety standards apply to new motor vehicles and new items of motor vehicle equipment, and the responsibility for assuring compliance rests with the manufacturer.  However, the Act also includes some restrictions on vehicle modifications after the first sale to a consumer.   Under §108(a)(2)(A) of the Act, a manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business may not "render inoperative" any device or element of design installed in accordance with a Federal motor vehicle safety standard. Thus, modification of a vehicle by such a person must not render any safety feature inoperative.   The owner or other user of a motor vehicle, however, may modify the vehicle without concern about possibly violating a Federal safety standard because the "render inoperative" provision does not apply to such users.   State law should always be considered before modification, however, because it may limit the alteration of a vehicle by its owner or other users.
You also ask whether the Act and our safety standards apply to various types of vehicles and ownership's.  The Federal safety standards apply to all new motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment that are introduced into commerce in the United States.  All the types of vehicles you mention, such as taxicabs, police cruisers, and utility vans, are within the Act's definition of "motor vehicle" (§102(3)), so they are subject to all applicable safety standards.  As discussed above, each safety standard sets forth the types of vehicles to which it applies.  There is no exception for the manufacture of vehicles for government or commercial use.  Also, as discussed above, the user of a vehicle, such as an owner or lessee, may personally modify his or her vehicle without violating Federal law, but users should check State law.
You also inquired, in cases whether the Act and safety standards do not apply, as to who might be liable for personal injury or property damage resulting from the use of interior partitions.  As noted above, the Act applies to all new motor vehicles, so each new vehicle is required to comply with all applicable safety standards.   However, the Act does not govern liability questions, regardless of whether a safety standard does or does not apply to a given vehicle or item of equipment.  Liability issues are governed by State tort law; you may wish to consult with a local attorney to discuss the liability laws in your State.
In addition, you asked how the preemption provision of the Act, (§103(d)) would affect a State motor vehicle inspection law requiring safety belt retention for passenger cars, but not for commercial vehicles.  That preemption provision prohibits any state safety standards for vehicles or items of vehicle equipment, which are not identical to Federal safety standards covering the same aspect of performance.  While that provision would not apply to the situation you describe -- since there is no Federal safety standard requiring the retention of safety belts -- the restrictions in the Act on subsequent vehicle modifications (§10B(a)(2)(A), discussed above) would apply.  Since safety belts are required items of motor vehicle equipment under Standard No. 208, the statutory provision would prohibit certain commercial enterprises from removing those belts,
whether from passenger cars or from commercial vehicles.  Thus, no State law could legalize the removal by such businesses of federally required safety belts, since such a law would conflict with §108(a)(2)(A) of the Act.  Of course, State law may require the retention of safety belts for any or all classes of motor vehicles.
Finally, you asked whether prohibiting motor vehicles from interstate commerce would effectively avoid the requirements of the Vehicle Safety Act.  Such prohibition would not affect a manufacturer's obligation under the Act to certify the vehicle and assure compliance with all applicable safety standards.  The Act is not limited to vehicles which are actually used in interstate commerce (i.e., those that cross State lines).  Instead, it requires compliance with safety standards for all new vehicles and items of vehicle equipment which are manufactured,  sold or introduced in interstate commerce (§108(a)(1)(A)).  In our view, that provision indicates Congress' intent to cover all new motor vehicles.  As a practical matter, it is extremely unlikely that any vehicle would never be in interstate commerce at some time during its lifetime.  For example, the delivery of the vehicle from its place of manufacture to its original place of sale will generally involve movement in interstate commerce. Also, a manufacturer has no way of knowing where its vehicles may subsequently be used. In addition, whether or not the vehicles are actually used in interstate commerce, their subsequent use on public roads substantially affects interstate commerce and therefore is subject to Federal law.
I hope these answers are helpful. We appreciate your interest in State safety belt use legislation, and again I apologize for the delay in responding. If we can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me or Mr. Oesh of my office (202-426-2992)   safety belt responding.
contact me or
Jeffrey R. Miller
Chief Counsel

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