Perkins, Phillips & Puckhaber
85 North State Street
P.O. Box 1138
Concord, NH 03302-1138
Dear Mr. Perkins:
This responds to your letter of September 30, 1994, concerning the applicability of "various federal regulations to a motor vehicle that was converted from its original intended purpose as a cargo van to a passenger vehicle." The modifications to the vehicle were made prior to its first retail purchase. The modifications included adding bench seats with Type 2 seat belts, adding windows, and covering the interior of the vehicle. The vehicle was involved in an accident in which four persons were ejected from the vehicle, two of whom were fatally injured. Your firm represents the two injured passengers and the estates of the two fatally injured passengers in a products liability and negligence action. Your letter asks a number of questions relative to the liability of three defendants in this action.
Before answering your specific questions, I would like to explain that the purpose of our interpretation letters is to explain or clarify the meaning of our standards and regulations. Our letters are not intended to be adjudicative in nature. Given that the issues you raise about the defendants' actions concern past conduct and involve complicated factual issues, I would like to make it clear that this agency cannot comment on the liability of these parties.
Your letter asked a number of questions. One series of questions asks which parties are responsible for ensuring that a vehicle complies with all Federal motor vehicle safety standards prior to its sale. A second series of questions addresses the issue of what types of modifications are considered either "the addition, substitution, or removal of readily attachable components ... or minor finishing operations." The third series of questions concerns the applicability of requirements in Standard No. 210, Seat Belt Assembly Anchorages, and Standard No. 301, Fuel System Integrity, to seats and seat attachment hardware.
By way of background information, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is authorized to issue Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that set performance requirements for new motor vehicles and items of motor vehicle equipment. NHTSA does not approve or certify any vehicles or items of equipment. Instead, each manufacturer is responsible for "self- certifying" that its products meet all applicable safety standards. NHTSA's certification regulations are set forth in 49 CFR Part 567. Under this regulation, each manufacturer is required to certify that its motor vehicles comply with all applicable Federal safety standards. In addition to certification responsibilities, pursuant to 49 U.S.C. '30112(a), "a person may not ... sell, offer for sale, [or] introduce or deliver for introduction in interstate commerce...any motor vehicle ... unless the vehicle ... complies with [all applicable standards] and is covered by a certification issued under section 30115 of this title." Section 30112(b) provides certain exceptions to section 30112(a), which may or may not apply under the circumstances you have described.
A person who alters a previously certified new vehicle also must certify that the altered vehicle complies with all applicable standards (49 CFR '567.7). However, as your questions recognize, this provision does not apply to the "addition, substitution, or removal of readily attachable components ... or minor finishing operations." In asking whether certain changes would be considered either "the addition, substitution, or removal of readily attachable components ... or minor finishing operations," you listed the following changes: installation of windows, installation of sub-flooring, installation of padding, installation of carpeting, installation of seats, changing the seating arrangements, attaching seat belts to the frames of bench seats, exterior painting, striping and new wheels.
Tire and rim assemblies (wheels) are specifically mentioned in the regulation as examples of "readily attachable components." Painting is specifically mentioned in the regulation as an example of a minor finishing operation. In previous interpretations of '567.7, NHTSA has stated that adding seats or changing seating arrangements (absent "extraordinary ease of installation") would not be considered the addition of "readily attachable components."
With regard to the remaining changes you listed, NHTSA has stated that whether modifications involve "readily attachable components" depends on the difficulty in attaching those components. The agency has looked at such factors as the intricacy of installation and the need for special expertise. Because changes must be made to the vehicle structure, windows would not be considered "readily attachable components." Unless anchorages are already available, the addition of seat belts to a vehicle also would not be classified as the addition of "readily attachable components." The addition of sub-flooring, padding, and carpeting to the floor of the vehicle may or may not involve the addition of "readily attachable components," depending on the amount of changes that were made to the vehicle itself. Finally, because striping is similar to painting, that modification would be considered a "minor finishing operation."
With regard to your questions concerning the requirements in Standard No. 301, that standard sets forth requirements for the integrity of the fuel system and does not set forth requirements applicable to vehicle seats. The requirements for seats and their attachment assemblies are set forth in Standard No. 207, Seating Systems. Standard No. 207 requires all seats except side-facing seats and passenger seats in buses to withstand a force of 20 times the weight of the seat applied both in a forward and rearward direction. For a forward-facing seat, if a seat belt assembly is attached to the seat, S4.2(c) of Standard No. 207 requires the forces imposed in a forward direction to be applied simultaneously with the forces imposed on the seat by the seat belt loads required by S4.2 of Standard No. 210. There is no requirement for simultaneous loading with respect to forces applied on such seats in the rearward direction.
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
ref:567#207#208#301 d:2/3/95 Your letter refers to Section 210 and Regulation 308. On December 13, 1994, during a phone conversation with Mary Versailles of my staff you confirmed that these were references to Standards Nos. 210 and 301. July 12, 1991, letter to Mr. Samuel Albury, Three Wolves and Associates, Inc. A copy of this letter is enclosed.