10313 Lower Azusa Road
Temple City, CA 91780
Dear Mr. Young:
This responds to your August 14, 1995, letter to the Secretary of Transportation asking whether there are any Federal regulations prohibiting your sunshade invention. The Secretary referred your letter to me because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the Department of Transportation agency that issues Federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS's) for new motor vehicles and new items of motor vehicle equipment. From the patent application materials and drawings you enclosed with your letter, your invention appears to be venetian blind-type slats for use as a sunshade device on all windows of a motor vehicle, especially the windshield.
In a September 6, 1995 phone conversation with Paul Atelsek of my staff, you stated that you were not concerned about confidentiality of this public letter, even though your patent application has not been made. You also indicated that you wanted us to supplement your letter with additional drawings and letters. We received those materials by facsimile on September 18, 1995.
Let me briefly review the important points of your letter. The blinds for side windows are depicted as being attached to hooks above and below the windows. For the windshield, they are attached to the existing sunvisor and the dashboard. In these drawings, blind deployment appears to be manual and require two hands. However, you state that you could also design the slats to be installed between two layers of glass and have them adjusted either manually or by electric automatic control. You believe that in a crash the blinds would cushion unbelted vehicle occupants before they hit the glass.
The short answer to your question is that, while there are no regulations that directly prohibit your invention, there are Federal requirements that it must satisfy. We also have some safety concerns regarding this invention.
The FMVSS most relevant to your blinds is Standard No. 205, Glazing materials. Among other things, this standard requires the glazing to permit 70 percent of the incident light to be passed through the window material. The purpose of the 70 percent light transmissibility requirements in Standard No. 205 is to ensure that the driver can adequately view the driving environment through all the windows that are requisite for driving visibility (which includes all windows in passenger cars). Installation of your blinds as proposed would not cause a noncompliance with Standard No. 205 because the test procedures do not incorporate an in-vehicle test. Instead, they contemplate testing only of the glazing itself. Your blinds need not comply with the standard either by themselves (because they do not meet the definition of glazing) or in combination with windows (because they are not attached to the window). However, if the blinds were installed between two panes of glass, the combination of blinds and glass would be considered a multiple glazed unit and would have to meet the standard.
Another safety standard (Standard No. 201, Occupant protection in interior impact) requires, among other things, that the area in front of the driver provide protection when struck by the head during a crash. NHTSA believes that installation of your blinds in front of the driver could have an impact on compliance with that standard, regardless of your assertions that they would not. If your blinds are installed on a sun visor so that a hard object (e.g., a rigid mounting hook) were to be struck by the occupant's head, compliance with the standard might not be achieved. Moreover, new requirements for cushioning in the header area are due to be phased in 1998.
Another safety standard, No. 302, Flammability of interior materials, requires that shades, such as your blinds, burn at a rate of not more than 4 inches per minute. If installed in a new vehicle, all surfaces of your blinds would have to meet this requirement.
We have some additional safety-related concerns regarding your invention. If a malfunction caused the blinds to lower or close while the vehicle is in motion, then the driver would not be able to see through the affected window. This would be particularly dangerous if the blinds for the windshield were deployed unexpectedly. Moreover, the blinds could make exiting from a vehicle more difficult if the windows had to be used for egress after an accident occurs. Mounting hooks for the side window blinds would also be a concern for impact with the head in a side collision and for emergency egress through the door (e.g., by catching clothing).
The manufacturer of these blinds, which are motor vehicle equipment, would be subject to the requirements in sections 30118-30122 of Title 49 of the U.S. Code concerning the recall and remedy of products with defects related to motor vehicle safety. In the event that a manufacturer or NHTSA determines that the product contains a safety-related defect, the manufacturer would be responsible for notifying purchasers of the defective equipment and remedying the problem free of charge.
Other legal requirements could apply depending on how your product is marketed. If your product were installed by a vehicle manufacturer as original equipment, i.e., on a new vehicle, the vehicle manufacturer would have to certify that the vehicle with the blinds installed complies with all FMVSS's, including the standards discussed above. In addition, if your invention were installed by motor vehicle manufacturers, distributors, dealers or repair businesses, those commercial enterprises would have to take care not violate section 30122(b) of Title 49, which prohibits them from "knowingly mak[ing] inoperative any part of a device or element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle ... in compliance with an applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standard . . . " For instance, compliance with Standard No. 201 might be degraded if the blinds were mounted in front of the driver. Any violation of this "make inoperative" prohibition would subject the violator to a potential civil penalty of up to $1,000 for each violation.
The "make inoperative" prohibition does not apply to modifications that vehicle owners make to their own vehicles. Thus, Federal law would not apply to individual vehicle owners who install your blinds in their own vehicles, even if the installation were to result in the vehicle no longer complying with the safety standards. However, NHTSA encourages vehicle owners not to degrade any safety device or system installed in their vehicles. In addition, since individual States have the authority to regulate modifications that individual vehicle owners may make to their vehicles, you might wish to consult State regulations to see whether your device would be permitted.
I hope this information is helpful. I am also enclosing a copy of a fact sheet titled "Information for New Manufacturers of Motor Vehicles and Motor Vehicle Equipment." If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact Paul Atelsek of my staff at this address or by telephone at (202) 366-2992.
Samuel J. Dubbin Chief Counsel