Mr. Gerald Plante
Subaru of America, Inc.
PO Box 6000
Cherry Hill, NJ 08034-6000
Dear Mr. Plante:
This responds to your September 17, 2002, e-mail concerning the telltale requirement for vehicles equipped with automatic suppression features for passenger air bags under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 208. You ask whether you may use a telltale design that would illuminate "PASS AIR BAG ON" when the passenger air bag is activated and "PASS AIR BAG OFF" when it is not activated. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has determined that the illumination you have described is permissible under FMVSS No. 208.
You state in your e-mail that Subaru is interested in using a telltale for which:
With the ignition on, the words PASS AIR BAG will always be illuminated . With the ignition on, if the passenger air bag is deactivated, then the word OFF is illuminated. If the passenger air bag is activated, then illumination of OFF is turned off and illumination of a separate box area with the word ON in black is illuminated.
Subaru's proposed design meets the specific requirement of a telltale using the identifying words "PASS AIR BAG OFF" when the air bag is deactivated, but it also includes the illuminated display "PASS AIR BAG ON" when the passenger air bag is activated.
On May 12, 2000, NHTSA published a final rule requiring all light passenger vehicles to be equipped with advanced air bag systems. These requirements are codified in FMVSS No. 208. The rule also established a phase-in schedule, starting September 1, 2003, under which vehicle manufacturers must certify that their vehicles meet these new advanced air bag requirements. The amended safety standard provides alternative methods of compliance with the advanced air bag requirements. One of the advanced systems contemplated for the passenger side air bag is an automatic suppression system, whereby the air bag is turned off when a small child is present in the front passenger seat. One of the required elements of such a system is a telltale that informs the vehicle occupants that the air bag has been suppressed when the passenger seat is occupied by a person that the suppression system identifies as a child. The final rule was amended in response to various petitions for reconsideration. Those amendments were published on December 18, 2001.
The requirements for the telltale are specified in S19.2.2 of FMVSS No. 208. One of the requirements is that the telltale, a yellow light, emits light whenever the passenger air bag is deactivated and does not emit light whenever the air bag system is activated (except that it need not emit light when the passenger seat is unoccupied). Another requirement is that the telltale have the identifying words "PASSENGER AIR BAG OFF" or "PASS AIR BAG OFF" either on the telltale or within 25 mm (1 inch) of the telltale. There is no requirement that the identifying language be placed directly over the telltale or be otherwise illuminated. While the December 2001 amendments did make some minor changes to S19.2.2, the only change affecting the required wording was the allowance of the words "PASS AIR BAG OFF."
Since the telltale requirements of the advanced air bag rule were based in large part on the requirements of an earlier NHTSA rule governing the installation of air bag on-off switches as original vehicle equipment, I believe it is useful to note that the earlier rule, published in the Federal Register on January 6, 1997 (62 FR 798), directly addressed the issue you have raised. In that final rule, NHTSA addressed Volvo's request that the telltale indicate the air bag status at all times. While deciding against adopting such a requirement, NHTSA noted that with respect to telltales for manual air bag on-off switches, manufacturers can voluntarily provide additional features "such as audible signals or extra lights as long as the Standards specific requirements are met." 62 FR 798, 805. NHTSA believes the same rationale applies to the telltale requirement for vehicles with automatic suppression systems, and the additional wording would be allowed under S19.2.2.
Subaru's design appears to differ from the type of design contemplated by Volvo only in that the words "PASS AIR BAG," which are constantly illuminated when the vehicle ignition is on, are backlit by a yellow light. The pertinent issue under the regulation is not the backlighting of the words "passenger air bag." Rather, the telltale requirements are designed to clearly notify vehicle occupants when the air bag has been turned off. Accordingly, no illumination of the word "off" is allowed when the air bag has been activated. While Subaru's proposed telltale design appears to meet this requirement, you may consider using a different color backlight to illuminate the words "PASS AIR BAG."
I hope you find this information helpful. If you have any other questions, please contact Rebecca MacPherson of my staff at this address or by phone at (202) 366-2992.