NHTSA’s Seatbelt Rule Straps Consumers’ Legal Rights

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NHTSA’s Seatbelt Rule Straps Consumers’ Legal Rights 

For Immediate Release: October 8, 2008

Contact: Jennifer Fuson
202.965.3500, ext. 8369

Preemption Clause Would Grant Vehicle Manufacturers Blanket Immunity from Lawsuits Related to Seatbelt Use

Washington, DC—In a rule designed to give consumers added seatbelt protection, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) today diminished consumers legal right to hold vehicle manufacturers accountable through the civil justice system, according to the American Association for Justice (AAJ). NHTSA’s final rule released today on designated seating positions includes specific language that would preempt state tort law claims related to seatbelt positions.

The language included in the final rule essentially prohibits consumers from legally claiming they were unable to wear a seatbelt because of lack of sufficient number of seatbelts or the seatbelt’s location in the vehicle.

“NHTSA has taken every opportunity to eliminate citizens’ basic right to hold vehicle manufacturers accountable when they have made a defective product,” said AAJ President Les Weisbrod. “We have seen this time and again from NHTSA; they put manufacturer costs and profits ahead of consumer protections. This time, NHTSA’s seatbelt rule straps consumers of their basic civil right—the right to a justice system.”

The “designated seating position” rule had two main objectives:  (1) to revise the definition of “designated seating position” to determine the number of seat belts that are required in a particular vehicle; (2) to eliminate the exclusion of auxiliary seats from the definition so that all seating locations intended to be used while a vehicle is in motion would provide the appropriate levels of crash protection.

This final rule issued today specifically includes the preemption language in the rule, in addition to the preamble, where NHTSA has included preemption language in past rules.

“NHTSA’s decision to include the complete immunity preemption language in the rule text is particularly egregious because the agency is now making law against congressional intent. Before when the language was only in the preamble, the agency was giving an advisory opinion," added Weisbrod. "Clearly the agency wanted to give the manufacturers a free pass on seatbelt safety.”

Last week NHTSA and the Department of Transportation notified the U.S. House and Senate that they would need an additional two months to issue the final rule on roof crush safety. The current roof crush standard, which protects consumers when a vehicle is involved in a rollover accident, has not been updated for 35 years. NHTSA began the process to issue a new standard in 2005.

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