Getting a Valentine from NHTSA

IT WASN'T AS ROMANTIC as a dozen roses or a box of chocolates. But truck equipment distributors have to view what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did on Valentine's Day as a lot more valuable, more practical, and something that has a much greater shelf life than candy or flowers.

Not to take anything away from roses or chocolates, but if you make your living installing truck bodies and truck equipment, NHTSA's announcement in the February 14 Federal Register has to be appreciated a whole lot more.

On Valentine's Day, NHTSA issued a final rule that addresses what the truck equipment industry has been saying for decades: there's a big difference between the industry giants that mass-produce automobiles and the guys who assemble commercial trucks one at a time using chassis that someone else manufactured.

Almost from the beginning of NHTSA's existence, local Mom and Pop truck equipment shops have carried a disproportionate share of the responsibility for truck certification. Bolting a truck body onto the bare frame rails of a state-of-the-art truck chassis may seem like low-tech work in a high-tech world. Yet it is this type of activity that puts Mom and Pop on the same footing as Ford and Chevy. The local distributor has to promise that the truck meets all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards. Why? Because the local distributor's mechanic held the wrench last.

NHTSA's Valentine's Day rulemaking is a significant change in the way commercial trucks are certified. Here's why:

  • More pass-through certification

    Today, truck OEMs certify that the chassis cabs they produce meet applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards — if the trucks are completed according to OEM guidelines. The chassis manufacturer's certification is the basis on which final-stage manufacturers can state that the completed vehicle meets federal safety standards. But that system is in place only for chassis cabs. Final-stage manufacturers are on their own whenever they work on any truck other than a chassis cab.

    The new rulemaking extends pass-through certification to all types of chassis — including cutaways, cowls, and even rail chassis. This will remove much of the legal liability final-stage manufacturers have been shouldering all these years. Under the new NHTSA system, final stage manufacturers will not be held responsible for the myriad federal motor vehicle safety standards on which the process of mounting bodies and equipment has zero impact.

  • Longer lead times

    Future NHTSA regulations will become effective in two steps. Chassis manufacturers will comply first. Final-stage manufacturers will have an additional year to get ready. During that year, chassis manufacturers will be able to communicate their compliance concerns to final-stage manufacturers and pass on to them the guidelines that final-stage manufacturers must follow in order to retain the chassis manufacturer's certification.

  • A new exemption process

    Small manufacturers currently can request that NHTSA exempt particular models from specific safety standards. But under the new rules, an industry trade association such as NTEA will be able to request the exemption on behalf of multiple manufacturers. The trade association can represent a group of companies, regardless of where they fit in the chain — intermediate-stage manufacturers, final-stage manufacturers, or companies that alter vehicles.

  • More evenly shared responsibilities

    Rather than making final-stage manufacturers fully responsible for the vehicles they certify, the new rules are designed to make each company in the chain responsible only for its particular link.

The rulemaking is the culmination of a decades-long effort to reform the way commercial trucks are certified. Even NHTSA recognizes the difficulty of the present system, stating in the final rule that “certification problems related to vehicles built in two or more stages have troubled both the automotive industry and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration almost since the agency's creation.” (Richard Nixon was president then.)

The new final rule is a triumph for multiple industry groups, particularly NTEA, whose successful litigation against the agency helped bring about change. The association also worked persistently with other industry groups such as the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association, Environmental Industries Associations, Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, and the National Automobile Dealers Association to hammer out rulemaking that is equitable for multiple parties while simultaneously preserving highway safety.

The new rules do not take effect until September 1, 2006. This doesn't happen very often — a NHTSA regulation that our industry can eagerly anticipate going into effect. Sweet.

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