Have you ever worried that your new car, van or SUV has too many seatbelts? Fear no more. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration just changed a federal regulation to make sure that only so many passengers can be safely belted in. And along the way, NHTSA is giving a gift to auto manufacturers by trying to protect them from lawsuits brought by accident victims.
The too-many-seatbelts notion is buried in the text of a new rule NHTSA published on October 8 (73 Fed. Reg. 58887). The rule defines the term, “designated seating position,” which the agency and automobile manufacturers use to determine where passengers can be expected to sit. Federal safety standards mandating how many seatbelts must be installed in a new vehicle, where airbags are placed, and other performance requirements all hinge on the number and location of designated seating positions.
NHTSA’s new rule focused on two main goals: expanding the definition of the term to include auxiliary seats, and making it more “objective.” But it was an ancillary goal of the new rule – an attempt to preempt state tort law – that led to NHTSA’s conclusion about manufacturers installing too many seatbelts.
The agency added the following language to 49 C.F.R. § 571.3(c):
Any State requirement, including any determination under State tort law premised on there being more designated seating positions in a motor vehicle than the number contemplated in the definition of ‘‘designated seating position’’ in paragraph (b) of this section would prevent, hinder or frustrate the accomplishment of the purposes of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards in Part 571 of this title, and is thus preempted by this regulation.
State tort law is fundamentally important in the field of automobile safety, ensuring that people injured in collisions can be compensated for injuries caused by the negligence of others – including manufacturers who fail to provide safe products. Individual tort cases often lead to redesigns or broad recalls. The Firestone tire recall, which likely saved thousands of lives, was prompted by state tort suits against the manufacturer. (Check out CPR’s recent paper, Regulatory Preemption and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, for more about the complementary roles of state tort law and federal regulation.)
Given the importance of state tort law, an assertion of preemption like the one in the new rule, ought to be backed up by strong support. NHTSA’s lawyers came up with this:
A tort law judgment premised on there being more designated seating positions in a motor vehicle than the number contemplated in that definition could have a negative safety impact. Such a judgment would tend to induce manufacturers to equip a seating location with an excessive number of safety belts since the Federal motor vehicle safety standards require that each designated seating position be equipped with one or more safety belts. Given that seat belt comfort and convenience continue to be important factors affecting the level of safety belt use, as evidenced by the agency’s adoption of requirements to improve comfort and convenience and by its 2003 report on improving seat belt use, NHTSA believes the installation of an excessive number of safety belts would decrease, not increase, safety. We expect that occupants would be less likely to use safety belts because limited space would make such use difficult or uncomfortable. For example, four safety belts could be installed on a seat that NHTSA believes is appropriate for three occupants. Where the seat is actually occupied by three occupants, in order to use the safety belts in the location where they are installed, some of the occupants may sit uncomfortably close to another occupant and/or the side of the vehicle. If the occupants attempt to sit in locations where there is more space between them, the belts will not be properly aligned with the occupants’ bodies, and they might end up sitting on buckles. This could have the effect of making it less likely that an occupant will use his or her respective belt because the belt would be located in an uncomfortable and/or inconvenient location. The potential for such a scenario would frustrate the efforts of this agency to base the number of designated seating positions, and thus the number of safety belts, on reasonably anticipated occupancy levels. This would hamper our efforts to promote high safety belt use rates.
NHTSA’s new rule is exceptional for two reasons. First, of course, is the absurdity of arguing that tort law is dangerous because it might lead to the installation of too many seatbelts. NHTSA doesn’t provide any evidence to support this claim. In fact, the agency’s primary justifications for altering the definition of designated seating position are crash data and consumer complaints about injuries resulting from passengers sitting in seats that weren’t equipped with belts.
Second, rather than writing its preemption assertion into the Preamble to the rule, as it has done in the past, NHTSA has taken the bold stance of writing it right into the rule itself – a Christmas-in-October gift to defense lawyers, if ever there was one. Instead of having to convince a judge to defer to NHTSA’s background materials (which might get only the deference earned by the power of the argument), attorneys for automakers will argue that NHTSA wrote preemption into the regulation as part of its congressionally delegated rulemaking power and, that courts should therefore defer out of respect for institutional competence.
This rulemaking is a bold step for an agency that is supposed to write safety standards that protect passengers from injury, not manufacturers from liability.