Ms. Lori J. Fuller
Ms. Sara L. Dill
608 N. Main St.
Washington, IL 61571
Dear Ms. Fuller and Ms. Dill:
This responds to your letter asking about the requirements of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for a device you call the seatbelt buckle safety sheath, an aftermarket product you have developed that would prevent children in booster seats from unbuckling a seat belt. Based upon the information you provided this agency and as is explained more fully below, we have determined that no Federal motor vehicle safety standard specifically applies to your product. However, as a manufacturer of motor vehicle equipment you would have certain responsibilities under our laws.
By way of background information, NHTSA is authorized under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (49 U.S.C. Chapter 301; the Safety Act) to issue Federal motor vehicle safety standards that apply to the manufacture and sale of new motor vehicles and new items of motor vehicle equipment. NHTSA, however, does not approve motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment or pass on the compliance of a vehicle or item of equipment outside the context of an actual enforcement proceeding. Instead, the Safety Act establishes 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 our understanding of the information set forth in your letter.
You explain that your device is designed to be used with existing seat belt assembly systems in motor vehicles. According to your letter, the sheath is a tubular rectangle made from resilient material, designed to slip over the the female portion of the seatbelt buckle. You state that the area of the sheath that is over the release button provides a stiffened resilience to the normal operation of the release button, so that a greater force than normal, not capable of being applied by a young child, is required to unfasten the seatbelt.
There is currently no Federal motor vehicle safety standard (FMVSS) that applies to your product. FMVSS No. 209, Seat Belt Assemblies, sets forth requirements for new seat belt assemblies. Your product does not meet the definition of a seat belt assembly, so the standard would not apply.
Although we do not have any standards that directly apply to your product, you should be aware of 30122 of the Safety Act, Making safety devices and elements inoperative. That section prohibits motor vehicle manufacturers, dealers, distributors, or repair businesses from knowingly making inoperative devices or elements of design installed in a motor vehicle or on an item of motor vehicle equipment, such as a vehicle seat belt assembly, in compliance with the FMVSSs.
There are several seat belt elements of design that could be affected by your product. Subparagraph (d) Buckle release of S4.3 Requirements for hardware, of FMVSS No. 209 requires the pushbutton release for any buckle on a seat belt to have a minimum area for applying the release force. Subparagraph (d) also requires the buckle to release when a specified maximum force is applied. By design, your product would cover the button and not allow the buckle to release under the amount of force required by the standard. Subparagraph (e) of FMVSS No. 209 specifies that a belt assembly must be provided with a buckle or buckles readily accessible to the occupant to permit his easy and rapid removal from the assembly, and that the buckle release mechanism must be designed to minimize the possibility of accidental release. If your device would interfere with the vehicles compliance with these requirements, under 30122 the commercial establishments listed in that section could not install your device on customers seat belt assemblies.
Section 30122 does not apply to individual owners installing aftermarket equipment on their own vehicles. However, it is our policy to encourage vehicle owners not to tamper with or otherwise degrade the safety of safety systems.
We recommend that you evaluate carefully whether your product would in any way degrade the performance of vehicle seat belts. For example, you should ensure that your product would not interfere with seat belt retraction or release in an emergency, that any sharp edges used with your product would not cause deterioration of the belt webbing, and that the device does not result in excessive loading of the abdomen of a child. The device should not degrade the flammability-resistance of the seat belts. In addition, as a manufacturer of motor vehicle equipment, you are responsible for ensuring that your product is free of safety-related defects (see 49 U.S.C. 30118-30121). The agency does not determine the existence of safety defects in motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment except in the context of a defect proceeding.
Please note also that the States have the authority to regulate the use of vehicles, and may have restrictions on the use of devices that restrict the release of seat belt buckles. We suggest that you check with your attorney or insurance company about State law considerations, including your responsibilities under State tort law.
I hope this information is helpful. If you have further questions, please contact Deirdre Fujita of my staff at 202-366-2992.
Anthony M. Cooke