Mr. Dave Otis
Signature Products Group
2550 South Decker Lake Blvd. Ste. #1
Salt Lake City, UT 84119
Dear Mr. Otis:
This letter responds to your letter inquiring about side air bags and their relationship to the seat covers that your company manufactures for sale directly to vehicle owners (in the aftermarket). You ask the following questions: (1) whether there are Federal regulations that regulate the deployment of side air bags in relation to seat covers; (2) whether your company should be concerned with possible liabilities of consumer installation of your products in their vehicles; (3) whether the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) operates a certification or testing program for seat covers; (4) whether any Federal regulations prevent seat covers from covering the air bag labels that are often found on seats; and (5) whether NHTSA is aware of any industry standards in regards to side impact air bags and seat covers.
This letter responds to your questions. Our answers are based on our understanding of the information provided in your letter.
By way of background information, NHTSA is authorized by the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (Safety Act) to issue Federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSSs) that apply to both new motor vehicles and new items of motor vehicle equipment. NHTSA does not approve or certify vehicles or items of equipment. Instead, manufacturers are required to self-certify that their vehicles or equipment meet all applicable standards. The agency periodically tests vehicles and items of equipment for compliance with the standards. Manufacturers must also ensure that their products are free of safety-related defects.
Currently there are no FMVSSs directly applicable to aftermarket seat covers. Thus, you are not subject to a certification requirement, since no FMVSS applies to your product.
However, seat covers are considered motor vehicle equipment under the Safety Act. As a manufacturer of motor vehicle equipment, you must ensure that your seat covers are free of safety-related defects. Among other things, manufacturers are responsible for notifying this agency, notifying purchasers of the product, and remedying the problem free of charge when a safety defect is discovered.
(1) Federal Regulations Regarding Side Air Bags and Seat Covers
You ask whether there are Federal regulations that regulate the deployment of side air bags in relation to seat covers.
Vehicle manufacturers have been installing side air bags in vehicle seats for a number of years. In 2007, NHTSA issued a final rule upgrading FMVSS No. 214, Side impact protection, to provide increased head and thorax protection for occupants of vehicles that crash sideways into poles or trees or are laterally struck by higher-riding vehicles. Vehicle manufacturers are installing seat-mounted, door- and roof-mounted side air bags in new vehicles to meet this new FMVSS requirement.
May you sell an aftermarket seat cover that covers up the seat-mounted side air bag installed to meet FMVSS No. 214? There are several factors to consider. First, under 30122 of the Safety Act, manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and motor vehicle repair businesses are prohibited from knowingly making inoperative any part of a device or element of design that was installed on or in a motor vehicle in compliance with the FMVSSs. In our opinion, if a seat-mounted side air bag were installed in a motor vehicle in compliance with FMVSS No. 214, 30122 would not permit a manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business to install the seat cover if the entity knew that the seat cover would make the air bags inoperative. (We are aware that the persons purchasing your seat covers are typically vehicle owners who install the seat covers themselves and that it is thus unlikely that a manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or repair business will install your seat covers.)
Second, vehicle owners are not subject to the make inoperative prohibition of the Safety Act when installing items in their vehicles or otherwise modifying their vehicles. They may install an aftermarket product even if the product negatively affects the safety systems in their vehicles, without violating our regulations. Nonetheless, we encourage vehicle owners to avoid disabling or reducing the effectiveness of safety features on their vehicles. Further, State law may have restrictions on the modifications vehicle owners may make to their vehicles.
Third, we believe it is practicable for manufacturers of seat covers to design their product such that the seat covers will not affect the proper deployment of side impact air bags. We understand that seat cover manufacturers have been producing such products for years. NHTSA regulations do not require manufacturers of seat covers to test their seat covers to see if they are compatible with the side air bags. However, generally speaking, we strongly encourage manufacturers to carefully consider how their aftermarket equipment might affect the safety systems on a vehicle.
(2) Liability Arising from Consumer Installation of Seat Covers
You ask whether your company should be concerned with possible liabilities of consumer installation of your products in their vehicles. To answer this question and to further address your questions about testing seat covers, you should consult a private attorney on this matter. As personal injury and tort litigation are generally matters of State law, such an attorney would have the best information with which to advise your company.
(3) Certification and Testing of Products
Your third question asks whether NHTSA operates a certification or testing program for seat covers. As explained above, NHTSA does not provide approvals of or certifications for motor vehicles or items of motor vehicle equipment.
We suggest you contact an independent testing laboratory if you are interested in tests of seat covers. For your information, I have enclosed a list of independent test laboratories that NHTSA has used under contract to conduct compliance testing to various FMVSSs. This list is available on NHTSAs website: www.nhtsa.gov.
(4) Covering the Air Bag Label on Seats
You ask whether any Federal regulations prevent seat covers from covering the air bag labels that are often found on seats. We assume you refer to the label or tag on a vehicle seat that indicates the presence of a side air bag.
Our answer is no. Our safety standards do not require that manufacturers include a label to indicate the presence of a side air bag to the vehicle user. The label does not include safety information or warnings. We have no restrictions on a seat cover covering the tag other than those related to performance, discussed above.
(5) Industry Standards Regarding Seat Covers
You ask whether NHTSA is aware of any industry standards in regards to side impact air bags and seat covers. Our answer is no, but we suggest you try contacting the test laboratories listed in the enclosure. The Society of Automotive Engineers (telephone: 1-877-606-7323) might also have information on industry standards pertaining to your product.
We hope this information has been helpful. For your information, we have enclosed an information sheet that briefly describes manufacturers responsibilities under the Safety Act and other NHTSA requirements.
Should you have any further questions, please contact Jesse Chang of my staff at 202-366-2992.
O. Kevin Vincent
Ref: FMVSS No. 214