Not the brightest bulb on the truck

HOW SMART is it to save a few bucks when buying tail lamps if you knew you would have to pay a $5,000 fine for each of them after they are installed?

Farfetched? Maybe. But it's a scenario that may become reality if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration goes after noncompliant lighting on commercial trucks and trailers with the same zeal it seems to have for automotive lighting.

In a special seminar at the recent Automotive Aftermarket Parts Expo (AAPEX) in Las Vegas, a representative of NHTSA's enforcement office announced that violations of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108 definitely are on the agency's radar screen. He also reminded manufacturers that under The TREAD Act, those violations are subject to a $5,000 fine per occurrence, per vehicle.

At the top of the agency's list of noncompliant lighting are high-intensity discharge lighting kits. In October, NHTSA said that it has investigated 24 HID conversion kit suppliers. Every investigation resulted in recalls or termination of sales.

The kits convert OEM halogen headlamps to the lighting systems used on some high-end automobiles. The problem is that the resulting intensity is much too high, sending four or five times the allowable light directly into the eyes of oncoming motorists.

Receiving dishonorable mention are other noncompliant parts, including LED lamps and incandescent lighting assemblies commonly being sold for use on commercial vehicles.

NHTSA's interest in noncompliant lighting has been in response to growing pressure from U S lighting manufacturers. These companies say they spend large sums of money testing their products to make sure they comply, but they are losing market share to importers who sell competing products that have not been tested for compliance.

“We aren't asking for government protection from imports,” Art Richardson, vice-president of sales for Peterson Manufacturing and the immediate past president of the Transportation Safety Equipment Institute, said at the AAPEX seminar. “Some of our own products are manufactured in other countries. But the products we manufacture overseas and import into the U S have been tested to make sure they comply with U S standards.”

Richardson distinguished between counterfeit parts (those that can be passed off as imitations of brand-name products) and those that do not comply with applicable safety standards. Counterfeit parts are not necessarily noncompliant, although that can be the case.

Richardson compares the current state of safety regulation enforcement with the speed limit on highways. “If you put a 70-mph speed limit on an open highway and never enforced it, you soon would have an autobahn. Somehow we have to police this thing.”

Members of the Transportation Safety Equipment Institute have been pressuring NHTSA to enforce existing regulations so that all lighting products sold here have to meet the same standards.

To drive home the point, Peterson's exhibit at AAPEX included a demonstration of noncompliant lighting. The company compared two tail lamp/stop lamp/reflector assemblies such as those commonly sold for use on light-duty trailers. Shining the light from the two products showed distinct differences in photometrics. The imported LED showed hot spots, while the product that has been certified to comply with FMVSS 108 had a more even lighting pattern.

Perhaps more importantly, the reflector of the import did not reflect light — even though its appearance to a casual observer was similar to the compliant product. The product liability implication for trailer manufacturers, truck body manufacturers, and even final-stage manufacturers is obvious.

So how do companies in our industry ensure themselves that the components they are purchasing comply? Unfortunately, simply looking for the “DOT” stamp on a lighting assembly does not guarantee much of anything. In the case of high-intensity discharge lamps, converters sometimes drill out the originally compliant halogen assembly and insert noncompliant high-intensity discharge lighting — leaving the DOT stamp intact.

NHTSA's plan is to request documentation from the vendor that the lighting products have been tested and shown to meet the requirements of FMVSS 108. The request should be simple to fill — if the test results on which certification should be based really do exist. But if the vendor misses the deadline, the agency will be inclined to conclude that testing was never performed and that any DOT certification applied to the lighting product is bogus.

When noncompliance can be proven, either by NHTSA or by a plaintiff's attorney in a product liability suit, civil penalties for noncompliance become extremely real — and the allure of saving a few bucks dims quickly.

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