Dear Mr. Ponticelli:
This replies to your letter of July 25, 1995, asking for an opinion "on the use of Electro-Luminescent Strip Lighting on motor vehicles." The device in question "is an ornamental light which produces less than .05 candela/sq. inch." You have enclosed a brochure which shows the strip in use as a license plate frame and to mark the sides or perimeter of a vehicle. We assume that you are not asking about the license plate frame but only the "Lighted Pin Striping". The "Lighted Pin Striping" comes in "basic white" but once applied, seven colors of overlay tape are available to change the color. The brochure shows it in shades of blue and pink. You would like our views "on the installation of this product by regulated parties such as new car dealers and non-regulated entities such as aftermarket specialty shops and vehicle owners."
We are pleased to provide you with the interpretation you seek. The basic obligation of a new-car dealer is to deliver a new car that remains in compliance with all the applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards for which its manufacturer has certified compliance. In other words, the dealer must ensure that none of its actions before the sale of a new vehicle create a noncompliance with a safety standard. Further, if a dealer alters a vehicle before sale other than by the addition, substitution, or removal of readily attachable components, or minor finishing operations such as painting, is required to certify that the altered vehicle continues to meet the standards.
The Federal new vehicle standard that relates to your product is Standard No. 108 Lamps, Reflective Devices, and Associated Equipment. This standard permits a new car dealer to add supplementary lighting equipment such as the luminescent strip if the supplementary equipment does not impair the effectiveness of the lighting equipment required by Standard No. 108. The most common cause of impairment is lighting equipment that creates confusion with, or distraction from, the purpose of any item of required lighting equipment. Under Standard No. 108's lighting scheme, the color of lamps on the front of a vehicle are restricted to white and amber. On the side of the vehicle, side marker lamps and reflectors must be only amber to the front and red to the rear. Rear lighting is red or amber, with the color white permitted for the backup lamp only. The Lighted Pin Striping comes in a variety of colors. Your brochure shows one that is pink or red in color mounted on the front of a vehicle. We believe it possible that a motorist seeing a color of light on the front of the vehicle generally used on the rear or on the side at the rear could be distracted from the driving task. There is also the possibility that the strip would be bright enough to mask and thereby reduce the effectiveness of an adjacent front or rear turn signal, or stop lamp. In general, the agency tries to discourage the use of novelty lighting devices because of the uncertain reaction an unfamiliar light or reflection may cause in other drivers on the roadway. However, the determination as to whether installation of the lighting strip would impair the efficiency of required lighting equipment is initially that of the new car dealer who must determine whether his modifications to a new vehicle might take it out of compliance. Unless that determination is clearly erroneous, NHTSA will not contest it.
With respect to sales in the aftermarket, installation by a manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business of the lighting strip would be prohibited if the use of the strip would, in the words of the statute, "make inoperative" any of the required lighting equipment. We tend to equate "make inoperative" and "impair effectiveness" so that the same considerations would have to be taken into account in installing the lighting equipment on a used as well as a new car. However, this prohibition does not extend to the vehicle owner who, under Federal law, may install the lighting strip regardless of its effect upon compliance.
Nevertheless, even if novelty lighting equipment does not violate Federal law, the ultimate decision of its acceptability is that of the State in which the lighting strip is to be used. It is our understanding that, for example, that California requires any emitted or reflected light from the front of vehicles to be white or yellow in color, which would appear to preclude installation of the lighting strip in colors other than these. For an opinion on the treatment of
the lighting strip under State laws, we suggest that you write for an opinion to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, 4600 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, Va. 22203.
If you have any further questions, you may refer them to Taylor Vinson of this Office (202-366-5263).
John Womack Acting Chief Counsel