308 N. Forklanding Road
Maple Shade, NJ 08052
Dear Ms. Salcedas:
This responds to the letter that you and Mr. Silva sent us on December 14, 1996. We are sending a copy of our reply to Mr. Silva at his Philadelphia address. You have asked our "assistance in ensuring that the patent [for the Auto Brake Light] meets the requirements for Code 571.108."
The patent application indicates that the Auto Brake Light is a message-sending device that can take several forms. In one application, the center highmounted stop lamp can display the message "STOP". In another form, the left hand stop lamp, the center highmounted stop lamp, and the right hand stop lamp can display, one word to a lamp, the message "SLOW DOWN NOW". We assume that the lower stop lamps could also display the message "SLOW DOWN." The application states that "[o]ptimally, the present invention may be used with retrofitted light assemblies that are attached to a vehicle after its original manufacture."
Under our basic regulatory statute, 49 U.S.C. Chapter 301, a motor vehicle must conform with all applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards at the time it is sold and delivered to its initial purchaser. This means that, if the vehicle is modified after manufacture and before such sale, it must continue to comply with the Federal safety standards after the modifications. Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 108 Lamps, Reflective Devices and Associated Equipment, 49 CFR 571.108, permits the addition of supplementary lighting devices at the time of initial manufacture or before initial sale provided that they do not impair the effectiveness of lighting equipment required as original equipment by Standard No. 108.
As noted above, in one form of your invention, the center highmounted stop lamp can display the word "STOP." Figure 10 of Standard No. 108 establishes minimum candela intensity values that must be met at individual test points on the lamp, or the sum of such test points within zones. If any portion of the word "STOP" obscures the light at any individual test point so that the zone total falls below the minimum sum specified for the zone, that obscuration would create a noncompliance with Standard No. 108, and the retrofitted lamp would not be permissible. In addition, visibility of the center stoplamp signal must not be impaired by any part of the vehicle including the word "STOP" from test points 10U to 5D and from 10L to 10R, unless the lamp is designed to comply with all requirements when the obstruction is considered. If the letters can be arranged so that the lamp continues to comply, as discussed above, we do not believe that the word "STOP" would impair the effectiveness of the center stop lamp.
On the other hand, we believe that the message "SLOW DOWN" or "SLOW DOWN NOW" when placed on the lower stop lamps could create a momentary distraction, which would impair the effectiveness of the stop lamp system when used to signal that the vehicle is stopping. This aspect of your invention would not be permitted by Standard No. 108.
Once a motor vehicle is sold, 49 U.S.C. Chapter 301 prohibits manufacturers, dealers, distributors, and motor vehicle repair businesses from making inoperative any device or element of design installed in accordance with a Federal motor vehicle safety standard. We view the phrase "making inoperative" in this case as the equivalent of creating a noncompliance with Standard No. 108. This means that the persons named in the previous sentence may not retrofit a center lamp with the word "STOP" if it obscures any of the required test points. Further, it means that such persons may not retrofit vehicles with lamps spelling "SLOW DOWN NOW."
Because existing lamps are designed to meet the required test points with an unobscured lens, it is almost a certainty that lamps on vehicles in use would become noncomplying if retrofitted with letters forming words such as "STOP" and "SLOW DOWN NOW."
You will note that the prohibition discussed above does not extend to the vehicle owner who, under the statute, may create a noncompliance in his or her vehicle without violating Federal law. But a vehicle modified by its owner remains subject to the laws of the States in which it is registered and used. We are unable to advise you on State laws that may affect your device, and recommend that you contact the Department of Motor Vehicles of the States where you intend to market it.
We offer no opinion on the validity under Federal law of the other patented lighting devices discussed in the application.
If you have any questions, you may contact Taylor Vinson of this Office (202-366-5263).
Acting Chief Counsel
cc: Mr. Armenio N. Silva
5110 Arendele Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19114