Cristina M. Offenberg, Esq.
1100 Aquidneck Avenue
Middletown, RI 02842
Dear Ms. Offenberg:
This responds to your March 13, 2006 letter asking whether Federal regulations apply to a cloth infant/child car seat cover that your client manufactures. While not describing the product in detail, your letter states that the owner of the car seat will fit the cover on the seat and that the cover does not alter the car seat in any way. You ask if there are any Federal regulations that apply to the seat cover, and whether the seat cover would be a violation of any traffic safety laws or whether it exposes my manufacturer to any liability.
By way of background information, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has the authority (49 U.S.C. 30101 et seq.) to issue Federal motor vehicle safety standards for new motor vehicles and new items of motor vehicle equipment. NHTSA does not, however, approve or certify any vehicles or items of equipment. Instead, Congress has established a "self-certification" process under which each manufacturer is responsible for certifying that its products meet all applicable safety standards. The following represents our opinion based on the information set forth in your letter.
There currently is no Federal motor vehicle safety standard that directly applies to a car seat cover. Our standard for child restraint systems, FMVSS No. 213 (49 CFR 571.213), applies to any device, except Type I or Type II seat belts, designed for use in a motor vehicle or aircraft to restrain, seat, or position children who weigh 30 kilograms (kg) pounds or less. (Infant/child car seats are included in the definition of child restraint system.) The standard does not apply to accessory items, such as a cover that is used with a child restraint system, which is sold to consumers to install on their child restraints. (Accessory items sold to consumers for use with the products they own are sometimes referred to as aftermarket products.) However, as explained below, there are Federal requirements and safety considerations of which your client should be aware.
While no FMVSS applies to an aftermarket car seat cover, the product is considered to be an item of motor vehicle equipment. As a manufacturer of motor vehicle equipment, your client is subject to the requirements of 49 U.S.C. 30118-30121 concerning the recall and remedy of products with safety-related defects. I have enclosed an information sheet that briefly describes those and other manufacturer responsibilities. In the event the manufacturer or NHTSA determines that the product contains a safety-related defect, the manufacturer would be responsible for, among other things, notifying purchasers of the defective equipment and remedying the problem free of charge.
Section 30122 of our statute prohibits a motor vehicle manufacturer, distributor, dealer or repair business from knowingly making inoperative any part of a device or element of design installed in compliance with the Federal safety standards. The prohibition of 30122 does not apply to individual owners installing aftermarket items on their own vehicles or equipment. We recognize that it is unlikely that a manufacturer, distributor, dealer or repair business will be installing your clients product. However, when manufacturing a child seat cover, the following should be considered.
FMVSS No. 213 requires rear-facing infant/child car seats to be labeled with certain safety information, including a prominent warning not to use the restraint rear-facing in the front seat with an air bag. A deploying air bag impacting the back of the child restraint could subject the child to severe or fatal head or neck injuries. A motor vehicle manufacturer, distributor, dealer or repair business that obscures the warning label by covering it with a car seat cover may be subject to penalties for violating 30122. In addition, FMVSS No. 213 requires child restraints to meet flammability resistance requirements. Installation of a cover that degraded the flammability resistance of the child restraint may subject the commercial entity to penalties for violating 30122.
We recommend that manufacturers of child seat covers consider the concerns about the air bag warning label and flammability resistance of the child restraint regardless of whether the cover would be installed by a commercial entity or by the child restraint owner.
In addition, we recommend that manufacturers of seat covers examine how the cover interacts with the child restraint. The cover should not interfere with the belt systems in restraining the child. The cover should not have excessive padding or other material that can compress in a crash and introduce slack into the belt system, which can result in a greater likelihood of head impact or ejection.
In response to your last questions, state or local jurisdictions have their own traffic safety laws which could affect the manufacture and sale of the cover. For information about those requirements, you should contact the state departments of motor vehicles. As for liability issues, we are unable to provide guidance as to your clients potential liability in a private tort action. Issues related to liability and seat covers are more a matter of state than Federal law.
We hope this information is helpful. If you have further questions, please contact Deirdre Fujita of my staff at this address or by phone at (202) 366-2992.
Stephen P. Wood
Acting Chief Counsel
 There is a proposal to increase the mass limit from 30 kg (65 pounds) to 36 kg (80 pounds). 70 FR 51720; August 31, 2005 (NHTSA Docket No. 21245).