Mr. Brian Lambert
Panalpina Inc. / Ocean Imports
18600 Lee Rd.
Humble, TX  77338

Dear Mr. Lambert:

This responds to your letter asking whether several models of scooters you are considering importing into the United States are "motor vehicles" for the purpose of the regulations administered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).  As explained below, it is our opinion that the two models with a maximum speed greater than 20 mph are motor vehicles.

The legislation establishing NHTSA’s vehicle safety authority is set out at 49 U.S.C. Chapter 301.  Under 49 U.S.C. § 30112, a person may not import into the United States, "any motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment manufactured on or after the date an applicable motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter takes effect unless the vehicle or equipment complies with the standard[.]" (Emphasis added.) "Motor vehicle" is defined at 49 U.S.C. § 30102(a) as:

[A] vehicle driven or drawn by mechanical power and manufactured primarily for use on the public streets, roads, and highways, but does not include a vehicle operated only on a rail line.

In a November 26, 2003, letter addressed to Mr. Amir Ambar, we addressed the issue of whether a scooter that he wished to import into the United States was considered a motor vehicle under this definition.  We will consider the points we made in that letter in responding to your request.

In responding to Mr. Ambar, we noted that when determining if a vehicle is manufactured primarily for use on the public streets, roads and highways, the agency first looks to see if the vehicle has on-road capabilities.

We also noted that in an October 3, 1969, notice, the agency determined that while "mini-bikes" have on-road operating capabilities, they are not motor vehicles for

the purpose of our standards (34 Federal Register 15416; enclosed). At that time the agency found that "mini-bikes" were precluded from operation on public roads by a vast majority of States. The agency has determined this to still hold true. Further, "mini-bikes" were at that time promoted and advertised solely for off-road use.

The scooter at issue in our November 2003 letter was described as a "toy" intended for off-road use only. The literature submitted stated that the maximum speed of the scooter ranged between 12.5 and 16 miles per hour (mph). The scooter was shown to have an engine displacement of 36 cc, a height of 33 inches, and wheel diameters of ten and nine inches (front and rear, respectively). The owner’s manual and a label on the scooter warned against operating the scooter on public roads.

Based on the description provided, including its speed capabilities and small size, we concluded that the "scooter" at issue was properly characterized as a "mini-bike," and therefore was not a "motor vehicle" within the meaning of Chapter 301.  We explained that the scooter’s low speed capability would prohibit it from being operated in normal moving traffic. This was reflected in the warning label.  Further, the low sitting height and small wheel diameters were comparable if not smaller than those of the mini-bikes considered under the 1969 notice.

We also stated that while the scooter at issue in that letter could theoretically be operated on public roads, we anticipated that because of its small size and absence of a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), which is generally required by States for vehicles authorized to operate on public roads, incidents of its actual operation on public streets, roads, and highways would be comparatively rare. We recognized that the scooter was equipped with a headlight, horn, turn signals, and a mirror. We noted that while this equipment may be seen as equipping the scooter for road use, such equipment is also sometimes present on bicycles and other non-motor vehicles as well.

Finally, we stated that while we had concluded at that time that the scooter was not a motor vehicle, we might re-evaluate our determination if we were to receive additional information indicating that the scooter (or similar ones) were being used on public roads on more than an incidental basis, the scooter were to be advertised for use on public roads, or the characteristics of the imported scooters were not consistent with the descriptions provided.

We will now turn to the scooters you asked about.  In your e-mail, you stated that the three scooter models you are considering importing are intended for off-road-use only.  The JC 50 model is advertised as having an engine displacement of 49 cc, a maximum speed of 15 mph, and a height of 32.6 inches.  The JC 70 model is advertised as having an engine displacement of 72 cc, a maximum speed of 37 mph, and a height of 37.4 inches.  The JC 90 model is advertised as having an engine displacement of 85.7 cc, a maximum speed of 50 mph, and a height of 37.4 inches.  Your e-mail stated that all three models are marked for off-road use and all three models have VINs.  You further stated that sales of these scooters would be primarily through the internet.  As advertised on the internet, the scooters are shown with headlights and mirrors.

Based on the description of the scooters provided, we conclude that the JC 50 model is not a motor vehicle.  The JC 50 has a higher displacement than the vehicle discussed in the Ambar letter, but its maximum speed is within the range discussed by that letter.  Further, the seating height of the JC 50 is also comparable to that of the vehicle discussed in the Ambar letter. The low seating height combined with the low maximum speed would prevent operation of the JC 50 in normal moving traffic.  However, you stated that the J 50 model is assigned a VIN.  We would expect that if a manufacturer did not intend to produce a motor vehicle, the vehicle would not be assigned a VIN.  The J 50 presents a close case, but because it is similar enough in speed and size to the vehicle in the Ambar letter, we conclude that it is not a "motor vehicle" for the purpose of our regulations.

In considering whether vehicles with on-road capabilities are motor vehicles, the agency has traditionally used a maximum speed capability of 20 mph, along with other vehicle characteristics, to divide motor vehicles from non-motor vehicles.  That is, while a speed capability of 20 mph or less has not by itself meant that a vehicle is not considered a motor vehicle, a speed capability greater than 20 mph makes it much likelier that a vehicle will be used on the public highways and considered a motor vehicle.

The JC 70 and JC 90 models have a low seating height.  However, their speed capabilities are 37 mph and 50 mph, which make it possible for them to be operated in normal moving traffic.  As noted above, in the letter to Mr. Ambar, the agency stated that the presence of lights, mirrors, and turn signals is not determinative that a scooter will be considered a motor vehicle.  However, the presence of such equipment on vehicles with speed capabilities above 20 mph, such as the JC 70 and JC 90, make it more likely that a scooter will be used on a public road.  We also note the presence of a VIN number.  Finally, while the scooters would be marked for off-road use, a label alone is not determinative with respect to whether a vehicle is a motor vehicle.  Given the overall configuration of these vehicles, and especially the speed capabilities, it is our opinion that they are motor vehicles for purposes of our regulations. Therefore, the JC 70 and JC 90 models would have to comply with all applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards and be certified by their manufacturer as being in compliance.

We note that in the upcoming months, the agency intends to further address the classification of two and three wheeled vehicles as motor vehicles through a notice in the Federal Register.  If you have any further questions, please contact Mr. Chris Calamita of my staff at (202) 366-2992.       


Jacqueline Glassman
Chief Counsel