Mr. A. Dorian Challoner
311 Carriage Place
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266

Dear Mr. Challoner:

Representative Jane Harmon has asked us to address the problem you reported to her office about your mother's car.

According to the information you provided Ms. Harmon, the car is a 1990 Dodge Dynasty manufactured for the Canadian market. Since 1990, your mother has driven the car in the United States under Ontario registration. She has become a permanent resident of the United States, specifically, California. However, California will not register the car until you obtain a letter from its manufacturer saying that the vehicle is identical in all material respects to one that was manufactured to conform to all applicable U.S. Federal motor vehicle safety standards. Further, it requires that you contact this Department "for the proper clearance letter."

You have attempted to obtain such a letter from Chrysler Corporation. However, the company has informed you that it cannot grant your request because the Canadian-market car fails to comply with the requirement of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 208 that a 1990 model car must be equipped with either an automatic seat belt system, or an air bag. It also advises that modification is not feasible, due to the cost.

Your mother's situation is similar to that experienced by a number of others in California who have tried to register a Canadian car. I would like to explain how the importation process was supposed to have worked in your mother's case. As a general rule, a motor vehicle must conform to the U.S. Federal motor vehicle safety standards, and be certified as meeting those standards, in order to be imported permanently into the United States. Non-residents of the United States are permitted to enter their non-conforming vehicles into the United States for a continuous period of up to one year, provided that they declare in writing that they will not sell the car in the United States and that they will export it at the end of that time. If the vehicle remains in the United States for longer than a year, there is a technical violation of the importation regulations. If your mother made yearly trips to Canada in her car, there would appear to be no violation of this regulation if the successive re-importations were for periods of a year or less.

There is a substantial similarity between Canadian and U.S. passenger car safety standards, so much so that the agency admits Canadian vehicles on a permanent basis if their manufacturer provides a letter to the owner attesting to the vehicle's compliance. However, if a manufacturer will not provide such a letter, the owner must follow the procedure established by statute. This procedure was established by Congress and requires the Administrator of this agency to have made a decision that the vehicle in question is capable of being conformed to comply with the U.S. Federal motor vehicle safety standards. This decision is made on the Administrator's motion, or after a petition by a Registered Importer. A Registered Importer is a person that the agency recognizes as capable of modifying and certifying noncomplying vehicles to meet the U.S. Federal motor vehicle safety standards, and who has agreed with the importer to modify and certify the car. If the Administrator finds that the particular vehicle model is capable of being so modified, the vehicle may be imported under bond. Conformance work would be performed by a Registered Importer, who then certifies the car to NHTSA. When the agency is satisfied with the Registered Importer's certification, it issues the bond release letter that California requires for registration. Thus, had your mother followed the course prescribed by law for permanent importations, she would have contracted with a Registered Importer, who would have petitioned on her behalf. If such a petition had been granted (no decisions have ever been made regarding 1990 Canadian Dodge cars), the Registered Importer would have brought the vehicle into compliance with Standard No. 208, and the vehicle then could have been registered in California.

At this point, your mother has two options. The first is to return the vehicle to Canada (or export it to Mexico, which is closer to you). Second, she may contract with a Registered Importer for the petition/modification and certification procedure described in the previous paragraph. The closest Registered Importer to you is G & K Automotive Conversions, 3231 South Standard Avenue, Santa Ana, CA 92705 (phone: 714-545-9503; fax: 714-545-7667). While this procedure may seem to be unduly burdensome for the owner of a vehicle that has been operated in the United States for some years, there are benefits to following it. If Chrysler Corporation, which manufactured the car, recalls 1990 Dodge Dynasty vehicles for safety or emissions reasons, the Registered Importer is required to notify your mother of the recall and provide an appropriate remedy. In addition, the presence of the certification label on the vehicle should relieve future owners of the car of the need to re-satisfy registration authorities in California or elsewhere that the vehicle meets all U.S. requirements, and thus make possible resale easier.

If your mother chooses to sell the car rather than to arrange for it to be brought into compliance with Standard No. 208, she would not be violating Federal law if she sold it in the United States. However, it would be in the best interest of motor vehicle safety if the sale of this nonconforming vehicle took place in Canada, its country of origin, where it conforms to local standards, or in Mexico, where the U.S. Federal motor vehicle safety standards are not in effect.

We regret that we cannot be of greater assistance. If you have any additional questions, please contact Taylor Vinson of this Office at phone number 202-366-5263.

John Womack
Acting Chief Counsel
cc: Representative Jane Harmon
Torrance, CA Office