The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced at the end of August that it was moving back the implementation deadline for changes to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 108, Lamps Reflective Devices and Associated Equipment by 15 months to Dec. 1, 2009. NHTSA endorsed the delay after getting 15 petitions from associations and headlight vendors arguing that NHTSA needed to reconsider many of the changes it was contemplating.
NHTSA originally said the changes were a simple reorganization of charts and other insignificant matters, mostly incorporating the Society of Automotive Engineers' (SAE) standards, referenced in FMVSS 108, into federal law. But companies and associations argued that the revisions would force vendors to make major changes in testing and materials.
One vendor company executive says that if the rule is finalized in December 2009 as is, customers looking for replacement incandescent bulbs for a turn signal might have to instead purchase more expensive LED bulbs. Also, proposed new testing requirements for headlamps could make those replacements more expensive, too.
Adopted nearly 40 years ago, FMVSS 108 was developed by NHTSA through the collaboration of multiple industry consensus standards, in particular SAE standards. At that time, motor vehicle technologies were relatively simple. As new technologies became available, NHTSA incorporated the relevant SAE standards into 108 by reference. Over time, SAE developed updated standards, leaving many lighting manufacturers confused over which standards — the new one or the one referenced in 108 — should be followed. Additionally, NHTSA created uncertainty by issuing an abundance of letters of interpretation.
NHTSA's attempt to clarify its standards came in the form of the 200-plus-page Federal Register final rule, issued in December 2007. The five or six proposed changes deemed significant by lighting manufacturers each involve extreme technical details, but simply could lead to higher aftermarket auto lighting costs, and perhaps, some changes in inventory. The changes mostly affect lamps, but some other products like rear license plate holders are affected.
NHTSA also wants any vendor whose products meet the new FMVSS standard to be exempt from product liability lawsuits filed in state court. Gerie Voss, director of regulatory affairs for the American Association of Justice, which represents trial lawyers, contends that NHTSA does not have the authority to pre-empt state lawsuits where an auto owner or passenger sues in the aftermath of an accident. Voss says an NHTSA product safety standard should not protect a vendor who can make a safer headlamp version but refrains from doing so because a current model meets FMVSS 108.
Stephen Barlas has been a full-time freelance Washington editor since 1981, reporting for trade, professional magazines and newspapers on regulatory agency, congressional and White House actions and issues. He also writes a column for Automotive Engineering, the monthly publication for the Society of Automotive Engineers.