Dear Mr. Je:
This responds to your letter identifying your company as a "trading company" and asking for permission from the U.S. Department of Transportation to sell air bags in the United States. As I explain below, no such permission is necessary, but there are some requirements you should be aware of before you begin importing air bags.
I am pleased to have this opportunity to explain our laws and regulations to you. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is authorized under Title 49, Chapter 301 of the U.S. Code to issue Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for new motor vehicles and new items of motor vehicle equipment. NHTSA, however, does not approve motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment, nor do we endorse any commercial products or conduct pre-sale testing of any commercial products. Instead, Chapter 301 establishes a "self-certification" process under which each manufacturer is responsible for certifying that its products meet all applicable safety standards. I note that the term "manufacturer" is defined in 49 U.S.C. '30102(5)(B) as "a person . . . manufacturing or assembling motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment [or] importing motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment for resale." (Emphasis added.)
NHTSA has exercised its authority under Chapter 301 to establish Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection (49 CFR '571.208). Standard No. 208 requires, among other things, that passenger cars provide automatic crash protection. Also, a phase-in of automatic crash protection requirements for light trucks is in progress. Vehicles equipped with automatic crash protection protect their occupants by means that require no action by vehicle occupants. Compliance with the automatic crash protection requirements of Standard No. 208 is
determined in a dynamic crash test. That is, a vehicle must comply with specified injury criteria, as measured on a test dummy, when tested by this agency in a 30 mph barrier crash test.
At this time, manufacturers are not required to use a specific method of automatic crash protection to meet the requirements of Standard No. 208. Instead, each automobile manufacturer is allowed to select the particular method for the automatic crash protection installed in its vehicles. The two types of automatic crash protection currently offered on new passenger cars are automatic safety belts (which help to assure belt use) and air bags (which supplement safety belts and offer some protection even when safety belts are not used). However, a recent amendment of Standard No. 208 makes air bags mandatory in all passenger cars and light trucks by the late 1990's.
Please note that the automatic crash protection requirement applies to the performance of the vehicle as a whole, instead of setting requirements for the air bag as an individual item of equipment. This approach permits vehicle manufacturers to "tune" the performance of the air bag to the crash pulse and other specific attributes of each of their vehicle models. However, this approach also means that the Federal standards do not specify specific performance attributes for air bags such as inflated dimensions, actuation time, and the like.
It is unclear from your letter if the air bags you wish to import will be sold to manufacturers for installation in new vehicles or if the air bags will be sold as replacement air bags or retrofit air bags for vehicles which do not have air bags as original equipment. If the air bags are sold to manufacturers for installation in new vehicles, the vehicle manufacturer is required to certify that the vehicle complies with all applicable safety standards, including Standard No. 208. If the air bag is added to a previously certified new motor vehicle prior to its first sale, the person who modifies the vehicle would be an alterer of a previously certified motor vehicle and would be required to certify that, as altered, the vehicle continues to comply with all of the safety standards affected by the installation of the air bag. (See 49 CFR Part 567.7.)
While most of Standard No. 208's requirements are expressed in terms of the performance of the vehicle as a whole and apply only to new vehicles and not to aftermarket equipment, there is one exception to this. Pressure vessels and explosive devices for use in air bag systems must comply with section S9 of Standard No. 208 whether they are part of a new motor vehicle or are aftermarket equipment. Therefore, the manufacturer of these items must certify that they comply with the requirements of S9 of Standard No. 208.
Another Federal requirement that would affect the device if it were installed in a used vehicle, either as a replacement or retrofit air bag, is the "make inoperative" prohibition in U.S. Code Section 30122(b), which 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 Federal motor vehicle safety standard . . .
The "make inoperative" provision would prohibit a commercial business from installing an aftermarket air bag in a manner that would negatively affect the vehicle's compliance with Standard No. 208.
You should also note that a replacement or retrofit air bag would be considered "motor vehicle equipment" within the meaning of the U.S. Code. Therefore, if the air bag contained a defect (either in manufacture, design, or performance) that relates to motor vehicle safety, the manufacturer would be required to conduct a recall campaign to notify owners and to remedy the defect free of charge. You should be aware that recently the manufacturer of an aftermarket air bag that did not provide crash protection benefits to vehicle occupants ceased offering its air bags following a NHTSA investigation. In addition, NHTSA provided information to the Federal Trade Commission concerning the claims made by the manufacturer in its advertising. We suggest you carefully review the manufacturer's test data on the devices you are considering importing to assure yourself that the air bag would afford adequate protection to vehicle occupants in crashes and that the claims made in the company's advertising are true.
I have enclosed an information sheet that identifies relevant Federal statutes and NHTSA standards and regulations affecting motor vehicle and motor vehicle equipment manufacturers, and explains how to obtain copies of these materials. Please note the regulations concerning manufacturer identification and designation of agent.
I hope you find this information helpful. If you have any other questions, please contact Mary Versailles of my staff at this address or by phone at (202) 366-2992.
Philip R. Recht Chief Counsel