Mr. Mark Wallach
Air Chex Corporation
50 Lydecker Street
Nyack-on-Hudson, NY 10960
Dear Mr. Wallach:
This responds to your letter inquiring generally about requirements pertaining to installation of “reflective tape” on the outside wheels of a truck or trailer, including any requirements pertaining to color and the width of the tape (referred to as “band width” in your letter). To place your request in context, your letter also enclosed a copy of your patent for a “Tire Pressure Indication System,” which contemplates application of a specific type of reflective material on the outer surface of a dual wheel assembly, in an effort to reduce nighttime collisions. You are seeking confirmation of the permissibility of the use of such supplemental tape on trucks and trailers, stating that in prior conversations, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) personnel verbally “approved the usage.” Although we have not had the opportunity to examine your device in operation, from the information provide in your letter, we are of the opinion that the reflective materials you seek to install on the vehicle’s outside wheels may distract and confuse other drivers. Accordingly, we believe that installation of such reflective material on those wheels could impair the effectiveness of required lighting equipment and, therefore, be prohibited under our regulations, for the reasons discussed below.
By way of background, NHTSA is authorized to issue Federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSSs) that set performance requirements for new motor vehicles and items of motor vehicle equipment. To clarify, NHTSA does not provide approvals of motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment, nor do we issue permits. Instead, it is the responsibility of manufacturers to certify that their products conform to all applicable safety standards before they can be offered for sale. NHTSA enforces compliance with the standards by purchasing and testing vehicles and equipment, and we also investigate safety-related defects.
As a preliminary matter, we note that we are not commenting generally on your patented tire pressure indication system, either under FMVSS No. 138, Tire Pressure Monitoring System, or otherwise. Instead, we are limiting our response to the issue of the supplemental “reflective tape” for truck and trailer applications specifically raised in your letter.
The requirements for reflective devices, including retroreflective sheeting, are contained in FMVSS No. 108, Lamps, Reflective Devices, and Associated Equipment. Because your system is intended to enhance the safety of trucks and trailers that are already on the road (i.e., vehicles already certified as complying with FMVSS No. 108), the reflective material to be added as part of your tire pressure indication system would be supplemental equipment. As such, the primary consideration is whether supplemental equipment added by the manufacturer or dealer satisfies the requirement that it not impair the effectiveness of the equipment required by the standard (see S5.1.3).
We note that while you have claimed that your invention may save lives, you have not provided any safety data to demonstrate that such an invention would reduce crashes or save lives. In the absence of such data for the agency to evaluate, we rely on the precedent established by prior letters of interpretation issued by the agency. In the past, we have interpreted this provision by stating that “’[e]ffectiveness may be impaired if the device creates a noncompliance in the existing lighting equipment or confusion with the signal sent by another lamp, or functionally interferes with it, or modifies its candlepower to either below the minima or above the maxima permitted by the standard.’” (See March 15, 1989, letter of interpretation to Mr. Byung Soh, dealing with motion-activated LEDs for hubcaps.) Furthermore, in our June 29, 1994, letter of interpretation to Mr. R.H. Goble, we stated, “We regard any supplemental lighting system with the potential of creating confusion in the eye of the beholder as one that impairs the effectiveness of other lamps on the vehicle, and one that renders inoperative, in part at least, other lamps by compromising their effectiveness.” As an example, if supplemental lighting equipment were bright enough to mask and thereby reduce the effectiveness of an adjacent, required front or rear turn signal, the supplemental device would be prohibited.
A similar prohibition applies to installation of supplementary lighting equipment after the initial sale of a vehicle, to the extent that it would impair the effectiveness of equipment required by the standard. In pertinent part, 49 U.S.C. 30122(b) states, “A manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business may not knowingly make inoperative any part of a device or element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment in compliance with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter….” Thus, installation of supplemental lighting equipment that impairs required lighting equipment would be a violation of 49 U.S.C. 30122(b), because it would take the vehicle out of compliance with paragraph S5.1.3 of Standard No. 108. Although this prohibition does not apply to the owner of the vehicle, NHTSA urges consumers not to take actions that would lower the level of safety of a vehicle.
In our October 21, 1994, letter of interpretation to Mr. Harry Williams and in our April 12, 2001, letter to Mr. Richard King, we examined the issue of lighted wheel rims and hubcaps (see enclosures). In our letter to Mr. King, the agency expressed concern that the steady-burning, orange/amber hubcap lights for consumer-installed aftermarket installation on heavy trucks and trailers could cause motorist confusion with the signals emitted by required brakelights, stoplights, headlamps, side marker lamps, and other required lighting devices – particularly if they are of the same color – because the supplemental lamps are located at approximately the same level as the required equipment. In our letter to Mr. Williams, we expressed concern that lights mounted on wheel rims, if sufficiently bright, could mask in whole or part the side marker lamps and reflectors and any lamps mounted on the front and rear that wrap around the sides. In that letter, we also noted that the color of the supplemental lighting equipment may be an important factor in determining impairment, because unless it follows the color code of FMVSS No. 108, it may be confused with required equipment.
In our opinion, based upon the information provided in your letter, the “reflective tape” to be mounted on truck and trailer wheels would likely impair the effectiveness of required lighting on the vehicle because this material would be mounted at approximately the same height as some of the lighting equipment required by FMVSS No. 108. Particularly given the fact that this material would be spinning as a result of wheel motion, we believe that this would be distracting to other drivers, thereby compromising the important messages being provided by required lighting equipment. This result is consistent with the precedent cited above. Furthermore, we note that changes in width of the tape or color, even if Standard No. 108’s color code is followed, are unlikely to resolve this problem.
In addition, you should be aware that other governmental entities may have regulations that affect your product. For example, the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has jurisdiction over interstate motor carriers operating in the United States. In addition, States have the authority to regulate the use and licensing of vehicles operating within their jurisdictions. Therefore, you may wish to check with the Department of Motor Vehicles in any State in which the equipment will be sold or used regarding any such requirements.
If you have further questions, please feel free to contact Eric Stas of my staff at this address or by telephone at (202) 366-2992.
Anthony M. Cooke