United States Senate
312 Federal Building
Third and Rosser Avenue
P. O. Box 2579
Bismarck, N.D. 58502
Dear Senator Dorgan:
Thank you for your letter on behalf of your constituent, Officer Rick Koropatnicki of Bowbells, asking how Federal regulations apply to a product ("The Plate") Officer Koropatnicki designed. Your letter was referred to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for reply, as NHTSA regulates the manufacture and sale of new motor vehicles and items of motor vehicle equipment.
According to the product literature and other material you enclosed, The Plate is a type of signal that a motorist could use to alert other motorists of his or her need for help in an emergency. The Plate is made of highly reflective material and attaches to a license plate. When activated from a wireless key chain transmitter, The Plate displays a message: "I need help. Call Police." The Plate apparently is sold separately from the motor vehicle, but it is unclear whether The Plate is attached to the vehicle by the individual user or a business.
The Plate is an item of "motor vehicle equipment," and thus subject to this agency=s rulemaking and enforcement authority under Title 49, United States Code (U.S.C.). NHTSA has not issued any Federal motor vehicle safety standard that directly regulates the performance of products such as The Plate.
Nevertheless, as a manufacturer of motor vehicle equipment, the manufacturer of The Plate is subject to the requirements in Title 49 U.S.C. sections 30118 - 30121 concerning the recall and remedy of products with defects related to motor vehicle safety. In the event that the manufacturer or NHTSA determines that the product contains a safety-related defect, the manufacturer would be responsible for notifying purchasers of the defective equipment and remedying the problem free of charge.
Further, a commercial business that installs The Plate is subject to provisions of Title 49 U.S.C. that affect modifications of new or used vehicles. 49 U.S.C. section 30122(b) 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 prescribed under this chapter . . . .
This means that a manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business must not install The Plate if such installation should make inoperative the vehicle's compliance with the agency=s safety standards. The following example illustrates the applicability of this provision: Standard No. 108, ALamps, Reflective Devices, and Associated Equipment,@ specifies that motor vehicles must have a rear license plate lamp, to illuminate the plate from the top or sides. If any of the above named businesses should install The Plate, that business must ensure that the installation does not "make inoperative" the compliance of the motor vehicle with Standard No. 108. Any violation of the "make inoperative" prohibition would subject the violator to a potential civil penalty of up to $1,000 for each violation.
Please note that the Amake inoperative@ prohibition does not apply to modifications that vehicle owners make to their own vehicles. Thus, Federal law would not apply when individual vehicle owners install The Plate in their own vehicles, even if the installation were to result in the vehicle no longer complying with the standards.
Individual States do have the authority to regulate modifications that individual vehicle owners make to their vehicles. Your constituent may wish to consult State requirements to see whether The Plate would be permitted under State law.
I hope this information is helpful. I have enclosed a fact sheet entitled "Information for New Manufacturers of Motor Vehicles and Motor Vehicle Equipment." If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact me at this address or by telephone at (202) 366-2992.
Samuel J. Dubbin Chief Counsel
Enclosure ref:VSA102(4) d:3/13/96