Mr. Kevin King T-80577
(H.D.S.P.) E2-36 LOW
P.O. Box 3030
Susanville, CA 96127
Dear Mr. King:
This responds to your letter concerning a model year 2003 or 2004 mini type van/bus that was used by the State of California for transporting prison inmates and that did not have seat belts for the inmates. You asked whether California Vehicle Code section 27315(g) requires that all vehicles have seat belts for passengers. In addition, you asked whether a California prisoner transport vehicle without seat belts constitutes a violation of Federal vehicle safety laws.
Let me begin by noting that we cannot answer questions about California law, and refer you to the California Department of Transportation, or any other relevant agency of that state on such matters. This office has no special knowledge or expertise with respect to the laws of individual States. My answer will address only the requirements of the Federal laws and regulations administered by this agency.
By way of background, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is authorized under Chapter 301 of Title 49 of the United States Code (49 U.S.C. 30101 et seq.) to issue motor vehicle safety standards that apply to the manufacture and sale of new motor vehicles and new items of motor vehicle equipment. NHTSA has exercised this authority to establish Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection, (49 CFR 571.208) which, among other things, requires safety belts to be installed at certain seating positions in motor vehicles.
We cannot give specific guidance given the limited description of the van/bus. Depending on the seating capacity and gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of the vehicle, it may have been required to have seat belts originally installed. If the vehicle, as originally manufactured, was designed to carry more than 10 persons, it was a bus under our definitions (see 49 CFR 571.3(b)). If it was a bus and had a GVWR of 10,000 pounds or less, it was required to be equipped with a lap and shoulder belt at every forward-facing outboard seating position for its passengers, and either a lap belt or a lap and shoulder belt at every other passenger seating position (see paragraph S188.8.131.52) at the time of manufacture and sale.
Chapter 301 provides that no person shall manufacture, import, or sell any new vehicle unless it complies with all applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards, including the seat belt installation requirements in Standard No. 208 (See 49 U.S.C. 30112(a)). The requirement that a vehicle comply with all applicable safety standards applies only until the vehicle's first purchase in good faith for purposes other than resale. See 49 U.S.C. 30112(b). After such first purchase, the only provision in Federal law that affects modifications that can be made to the vehicle is set forth in 49 U.S.C. 30122(b).
That section provides that:
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 ... in compliance with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter....
Please note that this prohibition applies only to the commercial entities identified in the section, not to individual vehicle owners. Vehicle owners may alter their own vehicles and operate them on the highways without violating Federal law, even if the owner's modifications cause the vehicle to no longer comply with the seat belt installation requirements of our standards. Thus, if a State purchases a vehicle and makes modifications itself, there is no violation of Federal law, even if the modified vehicle does not comply with our standards.
I hope this letter addresses your concerns. Please feel free to contact Ari Scott of my staff at (202) 366-2992 should you have any additional questions.
Anthony M. Cooke