By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.
Seat belt warning system for rear vehicle seats subject of advanced rulemaking proposal.
Pursuant to the mandate of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act of 2012 (MAP-21), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking which would require a seat belt use warning system for rear seats. Comments are due no later than November 26, 2019 (NHTSA Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 84 FR 51076, September 27, 2019).
Background. MAP-21 directed NHTSA to initiate a rulemaking proceeding to amend Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 208, "Occupant crash protection," to require a seat belt use warning system for designated positions in the rear seat. Recent studies have shown that while the use of seat belts by rear seat occupants reduces the risk of fatal injuries by 55 percent for passenger cars and 74 percent for light trucks and vans, seat belt use by rear occupants was only at 75.4 percent in 2017 as compared with 89.7 percent usage by front seat occupants. NHTSA responded to the MAP-21 mandate in 2013 by undertaking a study, which was concluded in 2015, regarding the effectiveness of existing rear seat belt warning systems. The study found that overall, drivers of vehicles with a rear seat belt warning system were satisfied with the system and noticed an increase in rear seat belt use.
According to NHTSA, seatbelt warning systems encouraged seat belt use by reminding unbuckled occupants to fasten their belts and by informing the driver that an occupant was not belted, which in turn, encouraged drivers to request unbelted occupants to "buckle up." Thirteen percent of model year 2019 vehicles sold in the United States come equipped with a rear seat belt warning systems, including vehicles manufactured by Volvo, Toyota, Mazda, Ford, and Jaguar, which provides the feature on its Land Rovers.
In addition, this standard has been implemented by the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE), which began requiring rear seat belt warnings in vehicles in September 2019. The ECE standard requires, among other things, a visual warning indicating any rear seating position in which a seat belt is unfastened and an audiovisual change-in-status warning.
Current regulation. FMVSS No. 208 currently requires a seat belt warning only for the driver’s seat belt on passenger cars, light trucks and multipurpose passenger vehicles, and some buses. It does not require seat belt warnings for any seating position other than the driver’s seat. The required warning system must provide both a visual and audible warning, with the audible warning lasting no longer than eight seconds. The limited duration driver’s seat belt warning requirement has remained in the standard, with some changes, since 1974. NHTSA has not subsequently amended FMVSS No. 208 to require seat belt warnings for any of the passenger seating positions, mostly as a result of negative public reaction. Instead, NHTSA sent letters to a number of vehicle manufacturers encouraging them to enhance seat belt warning systems beyond the FMVSS No. 208 minimum requirements. Many vehicle manufacturers subsequently implemented enhanced seat belt warnings for the driver and front outboard passenger seating positions. Based on information submitted to the agency in connection with the agency’s NCAP for MY 2018, 99.9 percent of participating vehicle models offered for sale in the United States had an enhanced warning (audio and/or visual) for the driver, right front passenger, or both, with a duration exceeding the FMVSS No. 208 requirement. Encouraged by this development and in response to the 2005 enactment of SAFETEA-LU, NHTSA undertook a multi-phase research study of seat belt warnings. These studies led to the current ANOPR action.
Comments. The agency has requested comments on the potential specifications for a rear seat belt use warning system, including:
- whether the system should be visual-only, audio-only, or audio-visual;
- triggering conditions;
- alternative warning systems;
- occupant detection technology;
- enhanced warning systems that utilized longer-lasting or audio requirements beyond that currently required;
- belt use criteria;
- seat belt occupancy criteria;
- electrical connection requirements;
- owner’s manual and label requirements;
- interaction with other vehicle warnings;
- harmonization with regulatory requirements or new car assessment programs in other markets;
- visual warning location;
- the type of information the warning should convey;
- telltale characteristics of a visual warning system; and
- minimum duration and other characteristics of an audio warning system.
NHTSA also requested comments on what vehicle types should be included and excluded, including the costs and benefits of inclusion, along with comments on ways to propose performance requirements that would provide manufacturers with the flexibility to design a warning system that was appropriate for each vehicle type. The agency was especially interested in receiving comments on whether a rear seat belt warning should be required for high-occupancy vehicles such as 15- passenger vans, large sport utility vehicles, school buses, and large trucks and vans with a GVWR less than or equal to 4,536 kg (10,000 lbs.).
NHTSA also requested comments regarding the effectiveness of rear seat belt warning systems. Specifically, NHTSA asked: (1) whether, and to what degree, a rear seat belt warning would be effective; (2) what specific warning signal attributes NHTSA could propose (e.g., duration of an audible warning) and how effective they might be, especially as compared to other possible signal attributes; (3) how the agency could quantify the effectiveness of a rear seat belt warning system, including data related to this issue; and (4) how NHTSA could balance effectiveness with costs, technological feasibility, and acceptability. With respect to any proposed innovative seat belt warning systems that differed from the current driver’s seat belt warning and current production front and rear passenger seat belt warnings, NHTSA requested comment on those possibilities, and the effectiveness of any such alternative.
Noting the challenges posed by consumer acceptance, NHTSA sought comments on what types of rear seat belt warnings consumers would accept and on the specifications that would maximize effectiveness while still being acceptable to the public, including the potential for intrusive warnings to lead to driver distraction. The agency asked the public to comment on how the potential for false positives could be minimized (because false positives could lead occupants to ignore or circumvent the warnings or lead to driver distraction).
Finally, NHTSA requested comments on the technological and economic feasibility of alternative rear seat belt warning systems and whether a rear seat belt warning would reliably detect a child restraint system attached by a child restraint anchorage system, or LATCH.
Changes to existing regulations. In addition to seeking comments on a rear seat belt use warning system, NHTSA requested comments on removing the driver’s seat belt warning audible signal duration upper limit. According to the agency, amending FMVSS No. 208 by removing the eight-second limitation would eliminate the need to differentiate between signals and give vehicle manufacturers greater flexibility in designing their seat belt warning systems. NHTSA explained that such a change would not affect the minimum required duration for the audible signal (four seconds) and would not require manufacturers to make any changes to their existing seat belt warnings that comply with the existing requirements of FMVSS No. 208.
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