Minnesota State Police
444 Cedar Street
St. Paul, MN 55101
Dear Major Gramse:
It has been brought to our attention by Mr. R.C. Rost of Minnesota Body and Equipment that there is a question regarding Minnesota's law concerning buses used for Head Start programs. According to Mr. Rost, Minnesota prohibits these buses from being equipped with flashing lights and stop signal arms. He requested the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to clarify any inconsistencies between the Federal and State law.
As explained below, to the extent there is a conflict between Federal and State law, Federal law would prevail in this matter. All manufacturers and sellers of new school buses must comply with the Federal law by manufacturing and selling vehicles that are equipped with school bus lights and stop signal arms.
By way of background, Congress has directed this agency to issue Federal motor vehicle safety standards, which apply to the manufacture and sale of new motor vehicles. NHTSA has issued a number of FMVSSs for school buses, including ones requiring these buses to have warning lights and stop arms. The Federal law requires that each person selling a new bus (defined in our regulations as a vehicle designed for 11 or more persons) to a primary, preprimary, or secondary school must sell a bus that is certified to the FMVSSs for school buses. State law cannot change this requirement.
NHTSA's longstanding position is that Head Start programs are primarily educational in focus rather than custodial, and are therefore "schools" under NHTSA's statute. Accordingly, buses transporting students to and from Head Start facilities are defined as school buses under Federal law and are therefore subject to the Federal school bus safety standards. Any manufacturer that omits the warning lamp system required by paragraph S5.1.4 of Standard No. 108 or the stop signal arm required by paragraph S5 of Standard No. 131 (or that delivers a bus with these devices inoperative), is in violation of Federal law, and subject to recall provisions and civil penalties.
The effect of the statute's preemption provision is that a State may not adopt or enforce a standard or requirement that regulates the same aspect of safety performance as one of the
Federal standards unless that State standard or requirement is identical to the Federal one. While the statute also permits a State to establish a higher standard of performance for vehicles procured for its own use, we would not view an exemption from the warning light or stop arm requirements as a higher standard of performance. Thus, regardless of how a State defines "School bus," a State cannot prohibit a van, with seating capacity large enough to be defined as a school bus under Federal law, from being equipped with warning lights or stop arms. Although each State has the authority to establish laws for the use of vehicles on its roads (including the equipment on the vehicles), those State laws may not override Federal laws for what type of safety equipment must be installed on new vehicles.
I hope this information will be useful. If you have any further questions or desire any further information, please feel free to contact Mr. Walt Myers of my staff at this address or at (202) 366-2992.
Philip R. Recht Chief Counsel