McAulay Fisher Nissen Goldberg & Kiel, LLP
261 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016-2391
Re: U.S. Patent No. 5,389,913
Warning System for Vehicles
Your file Jodee P-8A
Dear Mr. Fisher:
This is in reply to your letter of August 6, 1996, to the former Chief Counsel, Samuel Dubbin, with respect to whether a warning system for motor vehicles which you describe would be permitted by paragraph S5.1.3 of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 108 Lamps, Reflective Devices and Associated Equipment (49 CFR 571.108).
As you describe it, the system "provides a visual indication of a warning situation through use of the parking lamps, high beam headlamps, and back-up lamps." The system operates as follows: "when the horn is sounded, electrical circuits are energized . . . which cause the high beam of the headlamps to flash on and off, in synchronism with the flasher. If the high beams or back-up lamps are already in their 'on' state, they will change to a 'flashing' state." In addition, the parking lamps are activated in a steady-burning state when the horn is sounded (no change takes place if the parking lamps are already on). If the lower beams are on when the horn is sounded, there is no change either; only the upper beams begin to flash.
We note from reading the patent that the system incorporates an "off relay delay" which "is set for a predetermined time during which it stays in its on state after being energized. This predetermined time might be for five seconds." We note also that the system may be extended to other lamps but that the inventors have not chosen to do so because "such might produce confusion and/or an inappropriate response." Finally, we note that the flash rate is unspecified but can be changed. A range of from a quarter of a second to a second is mentioned.
Standard No. 108 establishes lighting requirements that a motor vehicle must meet up to the time it is first purchased in good faith other than for resale. When a vehicle has been manufactured to conform with Standard No. 108, a dealer must not add optional equipment that creates a noncompliance.
The principal provision of Standard No. 108 that affects the warning system is paragraph S5.5.10 which prescribes wiring requirements for lighting equipment in use. Under paragraph S5.5.10(b) "Headlamps and side marker lamps may be wired to flash for signaling purposes". However, under paragraph S5.5.10(d), "All other lamps shall be wired to be steady-burning." This means that it is permissible under paragraph S5.5.10(b) for the upper beam headlamps to flash, but the warning system would create a noncompliance with paragraph S5.5.10(d) when the back-up lamps flashed.
The acceptability of optional lighting equipment is also dependent upon paragraph S5.1.3 which forbids the addition of any equipment "that impairs the effectiveness of lighting equipment required by this standard." The warning system's activation of the parking lamps would not appear to have an impairing effect on the front lighting equipment required by Standard No. 108. Nor can we conclude that a flashing of the upper beam when the lower beam is on would have an impairing effect.
Under Federal law, the acceptability of the warning system as an item of equipment sold in the aftermarket is determinable by 49 U.S.C. 30122. This section prohibits manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and motor vehicle repair businesses from "making inoperative" any device or element of design installed in accordance with a Federal safety standard. As we have discussed, the system would create a noncompliance in the operation of the back-up lamp, which, in our opinion, is the same as making it inoperative. However, this prohibition does not apply to an owner who installs the warning system. Nevertheless, the warning system would remain subject to acceptability under local laws. We are unable to advise you on these and suggest that you consult local officials in areas where the inventors would like to sell their warning system.
We appreciate the concern shown in the patent that the system not create confusion and/or an inappropriate response from other drivers. But we believe it more likely than not that a driver ahead of a vehicle equipped with the warning system will indeed be confused when confronted with the sounding of a horn and the sudden presence of flashing upper beam headlamps in the rear view mirrors, and will not understand the "message" that is being conveyed. How this might impact safety is speculative. But with the increasing trend towards aggressive drivers on the roads, a system of this nature could be subject to abuse, even if its flash rate and duration were standardized and immutable.
If you have further questions, you may refer them to Taylor Vinson of this Office (202-366-5263).
Acting Chief Counsel