Texas Automobile Dealers Association
P.O. Box 1028
Austin, Texas 78767-1028
Dear Ms. Coffey:
This responds to your letter asking whether a dealer would violate Federal law by disconnecting a malfunctioning motor in an automatic seat belt system of a 1990 model vehicle. You state,
"a consumer has brought their vehicle to a dealership with an automatic seat belt in which the motor on the automatic seat belt continues to run. This continuous running of the seat belt motor causes the battery on the vehicle to run down, rendering the vehicle inoperable."
In a telephone conversation with Edward Glancy of this office, you indicated that the automatic seat belt is stuck in one position. The consumer has requested that the dealership disconnect the motor in lieu of repairing it. You also stated that, in the event of such disconnection, the seat belt may still be connected manually.
As discussed below, it is our opinion that, under the facts stated above, a dealer would not violate Federal law by disconnecting the malfunctioning motor.
By way of background information, Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection, required 1990 model cars to be equipped with automatic crash protection at the front outboard seating positions. Automatic seat belts were one means of complying with that requirement.
Federal law (49 U.S.C. 30122, formerly section 108(a)(2)(A) of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act) 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 or motor vehicle equipment in compliance with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard . . .
It is our opinion that this requirement does not prohibit a dealer from disconnecting a malfunctioning seat belt motor in the factual situation described above. Since the seat belt motor would already be inoperative when the vehicle was brought to the dealer, we would not consider the subsequent disconnection of the motor as making it inoperative. I note, however, that in servicing the vehicle, the dealer must not make another part of the vehicle or element of design inoperative with respect to the Federal motor vehicle safety standards.
While Federal law does not require dealers or owners to repair a malfunctioning seat belt motor, NHTSA strongly urges such repair, so that the vehicle continues to provide maximum safety protection. We also note that dealers and owners may be affected by State laws in this area, including ones for vehicle inspection and tort law.
In closing, we suggest that the dealer urge the consumer to contact NHTSA's toll-free Auto Safety Hotline about this problem, at 800-424-9393. The agency uses this type of information in performing its safety mission.
I hope this information is helpful. If you have any further questions, please contact Mr. Glancy of my staff at (202)366-2992.
John Womack Acting Chief Counsel