YOU'RE a trailer manufacturer. Why should you be attentive to the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers' Guidelines Compliance program?
Well, not because of enforcement issues. Greg Soden, the NATM's compliance director, told members at NATM Convention earlier this year that if they had a problem with enforcement, they'd know it long before he paid them a visit for a free consultation. He said they would have taken care of it and made sure all of their dealers and customers were satisfied.
Liability cost, however, is the lurking danger.
“Every day that you build a trailer, you're adding on additional liability,” he said. “The only way you can completely eliminate that liability is to shut your doors and tell your employees to go home. This compliance program is not going to eliminate it, and nothing that insurance companies tell you is going to eliminate your exposure. What we want to do with the program is hopefully reduce your exposure.”
Soden said trailer manufacturers need a quality-control program. He said that while most have something in place, they're not comprehensive. So, in some situations, “they're causing themselves more harm than good by having something started but not utilizing it completely through the process.”
He said the documentation retention program means companies need to keep records of everything, including engineering designs and blueprints.
“If you get involved in a lawsuit because of one of your trailers being in an accident that injures or possibly kills someone that may be no fault of your own, you'll have to defend yourself, and those are the items you'll need to support your defense,” he said. “Now is the time to think about having that in place — not when they knock on your door and say, ‘Hey, guess what? You're in a lawsuit.’
“The trailer you built last week is probably not the greatest exposure for an accident. What about the one you built three years ago? Five years ago? Do you have all the information or specs of the design to defend yourself?”
He said warning labels are critical, but it's impossible to put one on a trailer that could address “every stupid thing someone could do with your trailer.”
“I'm a firm believer that if you put a bunch of information on that trailer, when I'm in a hurry to hook it up, I'm not going to read it,” he said. “I don't have time. But if there's a little bit of pertinent information that is easy to find, then it's, ‘Yeah, I'd better check those lug nuts.’”
He said all of the information needs to be in the owner's manual — and NATM has developed a software program to help manufacturers develop their own owner's manual.
“(Include in it) the minor stuff, the major stuff, the stuff you think is common sense that everybody ought to understand,” he said. “Well, not everybody has common sense. You're not face-to-face with the owner. You're relying on a dealer network in most cases to explain how to properly use your product. An owner's manual takes it a step further and provides information to go along with your product. I recommend to manufacturers to put on the trailer those warning labels you think are a priority, but let's add one more. Let's say, ‘Refer to your owner's manual for additional warnings and safety information.’ That also helps alleviate the problem of the owner's manual getting to the dealership but failing to go on with the trailer to the owner.”
He said the purchase order is a key ingredient in the system of checks and balances.
“How was the trailer intended to be built?” he said. “What was ordered? What accessories were supposed to be on there? Did it require additional items?
“With a work-in-progress checklist, there are areas you need to be concerned with in the manufacturing procedure. You're recording all the components and identifying what was put on the trailer. The only effective quality-control program is in the final checklist. We know how it was supposed to be built, what was put on in the manufacturing process at different stages. Now who's going to check to make sure what was put on was what was actually ordered? A final checklist will do that. Who inspected it? Do all the lights work? Are you testing your lights before the trailer goes out? Sure, everyone is. But is anyone recording that you're having it done?
“You've got to remember that when it comes to a product liability lawsuit, it's not what you did. It's, can you prove that you did? You can be doing everything correctly and to the best of your ability, but until you can prove it in court, it doesn't mean anything.”
Soden said all records should be retained for the lifetime of the product. That means forever.
“Document all your changes — when you did it and why you did it,” he said. “If you make a change in the owner's manual, don't just throw away the old one and keep a copy of the new one. Retain all information that was pertinent to the trailer at that time.
“If you change from using a certain manufacturer of axles to another one, or you change from a certain steel supplier to another, you need to record the date and why you did it. You don't know what you're going to have to defend. None of us knows what is going to be attributed to the next accident that involves one of your trailers, or what stupid thing someone is going to do with one of your trailers and then blame you.”
Soden said that if there is a problem with the VIN certification label, usually there's something missing or the elements are not in the correct order: manufacturer's name, date, GVWR, GAWR, safety statement, VIN number, and the type of vehicle.
“Under vehicle type, all they want is the word ‘trailer’,” he said. “Is it all right to put additional information? Sure. If you want to put the model number after the word ‘trailer’, do so. Also, the metric measurements have to be first.”
Soden said that the manufacturer determines the GVWR. For the VIN label, the trailer OEM determines the rating, not the axle manufacturer. If the tire ratings are lower than the axle-weight rating the manufactured assigned, the axle rating needs to be de-rated on the VIN tag.
In determining the trailer's GVWR, manufacturers have several choices. A conservative approach is to make the GVWR equal to the sum of the individual axle ratings. But because some of the trailer weight is transferred to the towing vehicle, manufacturers may choose to give the trailer a GVWR that exceeds the rating of the axles — 10-15% more in the case of a bumper pull trailer and 20-25% for a gooseneck — as long as the other safety components are equal or greater than the established GVWR.
Regarding manufacturing requirements, he said safety chains must be equal to the rated GVWR and must be a separate attachment. They can't be added, and each must be equal or stronger than the GVWR.
Tires must have a load rating greater than or equal to GAWR — not the assigned GAWR from the axle manufacturer, but the assigned GAWR you put on the VIN tag. Passenger “P” tires must be de-rated 10% if used (and reduce the GAWR even more, which will affect GVWR).
Brakes for non-commercial vehicles are regulated under state braking laws and must comply with the state registered in commercial vehicles. They fall under federal brake laws. He said it is not illegal to put surge brakes on trailers in personal applications.
Steve Kildow of Dexter Axle, an NATM associate member, also appeared at the presentation and gave the reasons why manufacturers should have a compliance consultation:
“It doesn't guarantee that your trailer is a quality product, but it certainly signifies to the consumer that the trailer bearing the seal has something to do with quality and that there is an association there. Every one of us wants to build a quality product. What we're trying to do at NATM is to put the NATM seal and quality in the same sentence all of the time.
“The seal doesn't guarantee that the trailer is legal in every state, because there are different laws in different states. But at least from a federal point of view, everything within these guidelines either meets or exceeds federal regulations. So if you go through the guidelines, have Greg come in and inspect your plant, and he gives you the certificate, it does signify this trailer meets federal regulations.
“Any time Greg comes and inspects your plant, you're going to learn from that experience. He's going to talk about various things you need to be doing. I don't think there's one person in here who doesn't want to learn something new every day.
“You get the opportunity to buy the decal. If the decal doesn't mean anything, then why buy it? The NATM is going to make certain that the seal is going to mean something to the consumer.
“It means you support your association. This is the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers, and by purchasing and displaying that seal, you're letting everyone know you support the association. Those decals are a major financial contributor to this association and allows us to do a lot of things.
“In the past year, we have identified over 50 publications with a circulation of over six million people. We will be running ads in some of them. I think it will help you sell more trailers. I hope we get to the point some day when that end user doesn't want to buy one unless it has that seal of approval.
“Free consultations. It doesn't cost you one cent. The first one is free. We recommend one every two years. I don't know why anybody wouldn't want a consultation.”