Eric Bentzen, Manager
Revenue Compliance Policy
California Department of Motor Vehicles
Administration Operations Division
PO Box 825393, Mail Station D148 EB
Sacramento, CA 94232-5393
Dear Mr. Bentzen:
This responds to your letter in which you asked whether the State of California is restricted to limiting the safety requirements of three-wheeled motorcycle type vehicles, weighing 1,500 pounds or more, to be no more stringent than those Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSSs) applicable to motorcycles. Your question is addressed below.
By way of background, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is authorized to issue FMVSSs that set performance requirements for new motor vehicles and items of motor vehicle equipment. A manufacturer must certify compliance of the product with all applicable FMVSSs. Because NHTSA has no special knowledge or expertise with respect to individual State laws, this opinion is based upon your representations concerning the nature and scope of the relevant California State statute, on which NHTSA does not state an opinion.
Different FMVSSs apply to a vehicle depending on how it is classified, i.e., its vehicle type. Pursuant to the definition of "motorcycle" set forth in 49 CFR 571.3, all three-wheeled motor vehicles with motive power and a seat or saddle are classified as motorcycles, regardless of their weight. The pertinent portion of that section reads as follows:
Motorcycle means a motor vehicle with motive power having a seat or saddle for the use of the rider and designed to travel on not more than three wheels in contact with the ground.
Based on information you provided, it would be possible for certain three-wheeled vehicles to be classified as a motorcycle under the FMVSSs, but not be classified as a motorcycle under the California Vehicle Code; e.g., if they have three wheels and weigh 1,500 pounds or more.
Under 49 U.S.C. 30103(b), when an FMVSS is in effect, a State or political subdivision of a State may prescribe or continue in effect a standard applicable to the same aspect of performance of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment only if the standard is identical to the Federal standard.
Preemption is unaffected by whether a State classifies a vehicle in the same manner as the FMVSSs. The relevant issue is what standards apply to the vehicle under Federal and State law. A California safety standard would be preempted by 49 U.S.C. 30103(b) if: (1) it applied to the same aspect of performance of a vehicle as an applicable FMVSS; and (2) it was not identical to the FMVSS. A California safety standard would not be preempted under that section if it applied to an aspect of performance not regulated by an FMVSS.
You ask specifically whether California may apply standards which are more stringent than the FMVSSs that apply to motorcycles to certain vehicles that are considered motorcycles under Federal regulations, but which would be categorized as automobiles or commercial vehicles under California law. As stated above, any State standard that applies to an aspect of performance covered by the FMVSSs applicable to motorcycles would be preempted unless it was identical to the FMVSS. We note, however, that many possible aspects of vehicle performance are not covered by the FMVSSs that are applicable to motorcycles. For example, there are no FMVSSs applicable to occupant protection, seat belts, or roof crush that cover motorcycles. Yet some three-wheeled vehicles may have a roof and seating configurations similar to cars. A State may have its own standards applicable to those uncovered aspects of performance of vehicles that are considered motorcycles under the FMVSS.
If you have any additional questions, please contact Ari Scott at (202) 366-2992.
Anthony M. Cooke