Jim Soucie, Director of National Sales
I.M.S., The Kiosk Company
1538 So. 139th St.
Omaha, NE 68144
Dear Mr. Soucie:
This responds to your September 16, 2003, FAX inquiry asking if NHTSAs laws apply to companies that place commercial advertisements on school bus exteriors.
In your FAX, you write that your company "would like to place ads on the exterior sides of the bus, away from anything that moves; doors, mirrors or windows." In a telephone conversation with Dorothy Nakama of my staff, you stated that you want to place advertisements on only the exterior right and left sides of a school bus, and not on the vehicles front or rear. No advertisements will be placed in the school bus interior. The advertisements are to be made of vinyl, will be of as-yet unspecified dimensions, but will not completely wrap around the school bus. No school district or other school bus owner will place the advertisements themselves; instead, your company will arrange for a local contractor to apply the advertisements directly onto the school bus exterior, with no need for metal frames or brackets. The contractor will also remove the advertisements.
By way of background, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is authorized to issue and enforce Federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSSs) that set performance requirements for new motor vehicles and new items of motor vehicle equipment. (49 U.S.C. 30101 et seq.) Manufacturers are required to certify that their products conform to our safety standards before they can be offered for sale. After the first sale of the vehicle, manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and repair businesses are prohibited from "knowingly making inoperative" any device or element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle in compliance with an applicable FMVSS. In general, the "make inoperative" prohibition (49 U.S.C. Section 30122) requires businesses that modify motor vehicles to ensure that they do not remove, disconnect, or degrade the performance of safety equipment installed in compliance with applicable standards. Violations of this prohibition are punishable by civil penalties up to $5,000 for each violation. The maximum penalty for a related series of violations is $15,000,000.
The issue arising from your situation is whether placement of the advertisements on a school bus would "make inoperative" the compliance of the school bus with labeling requirements for the bus exterior.  FMVSS No. 217, Bus emergency exits and window retention and release, specifies labeling requirements for school bus emergency exits, which may be doors, windows, or roof exits. Among other things, the standard requires that:
- school bus emergency exits have the designation "Emergency Door" or "Emergency Exit" as appropriate, in letters at least 5 centimeters high, on both the inside and outside surfaces of the bus (S5.5.3(a)); and that
- required school bus emergency exits "shall be outlined around its outside perimeter with a retroreflective tape with a minimum width of 2.5 centimeters and either red, white or yellow in color " (S5.5.3(c)).
A person placing the advertisements on the bus may be subject to the make inoperative provision. Since the identification of the exits and doors of the school bus and the retroreflective tape are specified for safety reasons (i.e., to facilitate identification of the emergency exits and doors, especially in the dark), the advertisements must not obscure or cover the identifications of the exits and doors or the retroreflective tape.
Other identification requirements for school buses, including color, are established by each State or local jurisdiction. In NHTSAs Highway Safety Program Guideline No. 17, "Pupil Transportation Safety," it is recommended that the word "school bus" be placed on the front and rear of the school bus between the 4-way/8-way flashing lights in letters as high as possible, and that no other lettering be on the front or rear of the vehicle. If any safety problems associated with schoolbus identification were to develop, NHTSA would consider regulatory requirements in the future.
If you have any further questions about NHTSAs laws or programs, please feel free to contact Dorothy Nakama at this address or at (202) 366-2992.
 Our statute at 49 U.S.C. 30122 states: "A manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business may not knowingly make inoperative any part of a device or element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment in compliance with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter [49 USCS 30101 et seq.] unless the manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or repair business reasonably believes the vehicle or equipment will not be used (except for testing or a similar purpose during maintenance or repair) when the device or element is inoperative."