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Interpretation ID: nht88-1.45


DATE: 02/18/88




TEXT: Attached per your request is a discussion of the meaning of "practicable" under the Vehicle Safety Act, for use in connection with the next meeting of the Research Advisory Committee.



This paper provides a general discussion of the meaning of "practicable" under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (Vehicle Safety Act). The Vehicle Safety Act directs the Secretary of Transportation, or his or her delegate, to issue Feder al motor vehicle safety standards that "shall be practicable, shall meet the need for motor vehicle safety, and shall be stated in objective terms." 15 U.S.C. @ 1392(a). (Emphasis added.) See also 15 U.S.C. @ 1391(2). In issuing these standards, the Se cretary is directed to consider "relevant available motor vehicle safety data," whether the proposed standard "is reasonable, practicable and appropriate" for the particular type of motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment for which it is prescri bed, and the "extent to which such standards will contribute to carrying out the purposes of the Act." 15 U.S.C. 1392(f)(1), (3), (4). (Emphasis added.)

The dictionary defines "practicable" as "capable of being done, effected, or put into practice, with the available means; feasible: a practicable solution." Random House Dictionary of the English Language (unabridged edition). Courts construing the term under the Vehicle Safety Act have generally relied on the following statements in the legislative history:

House Report: "In establishing standards the Secretary must conform to the requirement that the standard be practicable. This would require consideration of all relevant factors, including technological ability to achieve the goal of a particular sta ndard as well as consideration of economic factors." H. R. Rep. 1776 at 16.

Senate Report: "The committee intends that safety shall be the overriding consideration in the issuance of standards under this bill. The committee recognizes . . . that the Secretary will necessarily consider reasonableness of cost, feasibility and adequate leadtime." S. Rep. 1301, p.6.

The court decisions construing the term "practicable" have established several general principles about its meaning. First, while NHTSA must bear in mind that Congress intended safety to be the preeminent factor under the Vehicle Safety Act, the agency is to look at costs as well as benefits. In Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association v. State Farm, 463 U.S. 29, 54-55 (1983), a case reviewing a recission by the agency of the automatic restraint requirements, the Supreme Court concluded that the agency had been correct to look at the costs as well as the benefits of the requirements. NHTSA had determined that the incremental costs of the requirements were no longer reasonable based on its prediction that the safety benefits of the regulation might be minimal. In this instance, the court required a reexamination of the agency's conclusion that the safety benefits might be minimal. The court stated that when the agency examined its findings as to the likely safety benefits, it must also reconsider i ts judgment of the reasonableness of the monetary and other costs associated with the standard, bearing in mind that Congress intended safety to be the preeminent factor under the Act.

A second principle is that NHTSA must conduct careful analysis of the economic impacts of safety standards. In H & H Tire Co. v. DOT, 471 F.2d 350 (7th Cir. 1972), a case reviewing a safety standard requiring retreaded tires to meet many of the same per formance requirements as new tires, the court concluded that NHTSA had not adequately investigated the practicability of the standard. The court found that current retread tires could not comply with the requirements and that there was a possibility tha t the industry's best efforts might be insufficient to insure prompt compliance. The court concluded that NHTSA had acted precipitately, adopting a rule which might possibly destroy a well-established industry, without adequate study. The court also in dicated that NHTSA must consider possible economic hardships of both manufacturers and customers. Note: The court agreed with the government that "the fact that a government regulation may cause economic hardship to a party does not make such regulation unreasonable" and stated that the deleterious economic effect on the industry of compliance with the standard at issue might be permissible if retreads unquestionably were major safety hazards and if compliance with the standard clearly enhanced retread s' safety under on-the-road conditions. 471 F.2d at 354.

A third principle is that NHTSA may issue safety standards that are technology-forcing. In Chrysler v. DOT, 472 F.2d 659 (6th Cir. 1972), a case reviewing a safety standard requiring vehicles to be equipped with automatic restraints, the court held that NHTSA has authority to issue safety standards which require improvements in existing technology or which require the development of new technology, and is not limited to issuing standards based solely on devices already developed.

A fourth principle is that NHTSA must consider the public acceptability of safety standards. In Pacific Legal Foundation v. DOT, 593 F.2d 1338 (D.C. Cir. 1979), a case reviewing a safety standard requiring vehicles to be equipped with automatic restrain ts, the court held that consideration of public reaction is part of the requirement that standards be practicable. The court stated that "(m)uch as economic analysis must evaluate both supply and demand conditions, motor vehicle safety standards cannot be considered practicable unless we know both that the needed production capability is within reach and that motorists will avail themselves of the safety system." 593 F.2d at 1345.

Finally, the meaning of the term "practicable" appears to differ depending upon whether it is applied to a mandatory or optional provision in a safety standard. In Chrysler v. DOT, 515 F.2d 1053, 1060 (6th Cir. 1975), Chrysler argued that a standard perm itting use of rectangular headlamps, as an alternative to round headlamps, for a specified time period was impracticable because that company could not complete the necessary engineering and retooling in time to produce automobiles equipped with the new headlamps before the option expired. In dicta, the court stated that it had "some doubt that practicability is a significant principle in the context of an optional provision in a safety standard." The court stated that a review of the cases in this are a suggests the practicability requirement was designed primarily to prevent NHTSA from establishing mandatory safety requirements that are economically or technologically infeasible. The court contrasted that situation with the one at bar, in which the use of rectangular headlamps was not required, and Chrysler was not subject to any statutory penalties for failing to comply with this aspect of the standard. The court also stated that even assuming that an optional requirement were required to be prac ticable, it would be difficult to conclude that the rectangular headlamp option was impracticable in any absolute sense, since at least two manufacturers were capable of producing rectangular headlamps.