What You Need to Know About Federal Automobile Safety Standards

The United States has federal automobile safety standards that are among the strictest in the world. When most people are out buying used cars or new cars for that matter, they do not think about federal automobile safety standards and why they are so important.

Federal automobile safety standards are in place to protect consumers, the environment, and to ensure that there is uniformity across the board. Even when a car is not manufactured in the United States, if it is going to be driven or sold here it has to pass the federal automobile safety standards.

What Are The Federal Automobile Safety Standards?

In a word the federal automobile safety standards are extensive and they address just about every part of a vehicle from the type of auto glass and its rating to electronics to mandatory safety equipment. The federal automobile safety standards are a list of fluid rules that are ever-changing. As new technology becomes available the rules often change.

As more and more Americans depend on automobiles for travel and daily use, the rules are getting more and more stringent. There are about 102 fatal car accidents every single day, the federal automobile safety standards are in place to control what can be controlled when it comes to vehicle safety.

The goal of these standards is to help to reduce the risk of a serious car accident injury, reduce the effects on the environment, and ensure there is a familiar standard across the board for consumers. Standards are often changed based on research and safety findings. For example, Title 49 of the United States Code, Chapter 301, Motor Safety Standard, was enacted in 1968 that required every seat in every car to have a safety restraint (seat belt). Before 1968 there was not a standard in place for personal restraint systems in motor vehicles.

These regulations are in place and it is expected that vehicle manufacturers will follow these standards. Even if you purchase a car overseas from an auto sales company, that vehicle will have to be retrofitted to meet the federal automobile safety standards before you put it on the road. The list is long when it comes to these standards and covers things like:

  • Electronics and displays. Every part of the electrical system has a standard enforceable by the federal government including the automotive bulkhead connector, display panel, wire harnessing, and more.
  • Exhaust systems. Every part of the exhaust system has a standard. The federal automobile safety standards are not only for personal safety but for environmental safety as well. For example, if you buy a car in Germany and have it shipped to the US, it will cost about $3000 above and beyond the cost to have the vehicle outfitted with the equipment that brings it up to federal automobile safety standards to be driven in the US.
  • Custom car modifications. There are federal automobile safety standards that address any modifications that are made to a vehicle to ensure those modifications do not render the vehicle unsafe.

What happens if you buy a used car from a used car dealership that is not up to the current federal automobiles safety standards? It all depends on which standards are not up to date. For example, if you buy a classic 1959 Chevy and it does not have factory seat belts, you should have them retrofitted if you plan on driving it regularly. If you buy a 1998 Mustang and some of the anti-pollution safety features are not in place, you should be okay, because many older model vehicles are grandfathered in. Typically, when new federal automobile safety standards come out it is a “moving forward” rule. For example, in 2011 several standards were proposed regarding fuel economy. Those standards if accepted would affect vehicles that were manufactured one year after the standards were published. This gives auto manufacturers time to implement the changes that are necessary to meet the new standards.

How Can I Find Out If My Vehicle Is Up To the Federal Automobile Safety Standards?

The National Highway Traffic Administration is the federal agency that oversees the implementation of the federal automobile safety standards. They have a website that you can visit if you have any questions about whether your vehicle is under recall or if it meets the standards.

Unfortunately, there are literally hundreds and hundreds of standards, and going through them all would be very time consuming. If you have a newer vehicle you can bet that that vehicle has been manufactured within the guidelines. Automobile manufacturers have enough headaches without trying to skirt the safety standards.

On the NHTSA’s website there is a search engine that you can use to help you locate information about specific components that have a standard that should be followed. You simply type in the part you are concerned about and results will be returned about that component.

Connecting with trusted automobile services professionals can help if you have a vehicle that you want to have retrofitted with the latest safety features if you are concerned that your older vehicle does not have the safety features that newer models are required to. It will of course, be at your discretion if you want to absorb the cost of retrofitting your vehicle.

Do DMV Mandatory Inspections Check for Federal Automobile Safety Standards?

In many states across the US you have to have your vehicle “inspected” at a service station approved by the Department of Motor Vehicle prior to registering your vehicle. Depending on where you live that inspection can be key in determining if your vehicle is currently up to the federal automobile safety standards, especially when it comes to emissions.

For example, California has some of the toughest emission laws on the books, far tougher than even the federal automobile safety standards. If you live in California and your vehicle fails the emissions testing, then you will be unable to register your vehicle until it is fixed.

In most states the safety inspection includes:

  • Checking for tire life. Worn out tires are a tremendous danger. An inspection will include making sure your tires are not worn to the point of a safety concern.
  • Headlights and tail lights are functioning. Headlights will be checked as well taillights to ensure that everyone else can see you on the road.
  • Directional signals will be checked. Being able to indicate your direction is an important part of driver safety on the road. Turn indicators will be inspected.

A lot of people think that the “check engine light” means that there is something malfunctioning with the engine like the oil is low or the timing is off, while in some models it can mean that, in most models, it means there is something happening with your emission system.

If your check engine light is on your vehicle cannot pass inspection, but more importantly, it is an indicator that there is something that needs to be checked. Usually, this indicator means that there is a sensor or module that is failing. Many times it is an oxygen sensor for your emission control system.

Vehicle manufacturers outfit your vehicle with sensors to help them stay within the federal automobile safety standards. Of course, the check engine light is not the only warning light on your dash, there is a range of warning lights on your display that are there to alert you and that were put there as a nod to the federal automobile safety standards.

If your airbag is malfunctioning there is typically a warning light that will let you know that something is wrong with your airbag. The same is true of your brake system a warning light will come up with the ABS is failing.

Recalls And the Federal Automobile Safety Standards

Recalls are often issued after a safety standard violation is realized. In most cases, recalls are for small fixes, but in some cases, the recall is far more serious. Volkswagen, the German carmaker has had several major recalls over the last two decades for violations of the federal automobile safety standards.

One of the biggest violations of the federal automobiles safety standards caused Volkswagen to recall over 11 million vehicles. Dubbed the “dieselgate” VW was accused of purposely engineering their diesel powered models to pass US emission inspections without actually having the equipment to manage the level of emissions that is required.

Luckily, VW is the exception when it comes to car manufacturers adhering to the federal standards. In many cases, the car manufacturer will realize something is not within the standards long before there are many deadly accidents because of the failure. Case in point, Chrysler Motors recalled about 4 million vehicles in 2018 when they realized that their cruise control may have been faulty. Chrysler voluntarily recalled the vehicles to make the repairs.

According to the NHTSA the “the largest and most complex safety recall in U.S. history” involved airbags used in Honda vehicles. Honda was the largest client of the Takata Air Bags company and had installed them in many of their vehicles under the Honda banner. In total there were 19 manufacturers that used the Takata Airbags. The airbags were found to be responsible for about 180 injuries, and 20 deaths.

It is strongly suggested if you drive a Honda that was manufactured from 2000 to 2010 that you contact Honda to ensure the airbag deployment unit was replaced. When you buy a used car it can be hard to track what recalls have been repaired but calling the manufacturer and letting them run the VIN number will give you the answers that you need.

Another famous recall involved the car manufacturer Hyundai. In 2018 44,000 vehicles had to be recalled because of the threat of steering wheel detachment, yes you read that right. If a paving company wasn’t being used to keep the roads nice and smooth and you were driving one of the recall models and hit a bump in the road you could lose your steering wheel. No one was killed or seriously injured because of this defect, but it certainly was a considerable safety issue.

You can see how important it is to have the safety standards in place to keep people safe when they are on the road. You can think of the NHTSA as a combination watchdog agency, and research agency. The agency spends a lot of time investigating claims of safety failures, doing research to improve driver safety on the road and working with car manufacturers to improve safety.

Safety and Accidents

The federal automobile safety standards’ main goal is to help drivers stay safer on the road. Each year there are about 6 million car accidents in the United States. On the upside of things, the number of fatalities due to car accidents has actually decreased over the last decade.

The newer driver-assisted technologies and the higher safety standards set by the NHTSA are accredited for making the roads safer. Over the last decade fatalities due to car accidents have dropped by about 21%.

The federal automobile safety standards have implemented standards that help to curb not only the number of deaths in a car crash but that also seem to be curbing the number of serious injuries due to car accidents. In 2018, it was reported that serious injuries due to car accidents were also down.

The federal automobile safety standards seem to be doing their job for consumers, and now have switched a lot of the research focus on how to curtail the damage to the environment. Hopefully, the NHTSA will move forward with the same commitment to the environment that they moved with to make the roads a safer place for consumers.

They seemingly have been off to a great start by mandating those fuel economy standards for new cars. Other areas they are currently looking at to improve safety for the environment including hybrid standards for hybrid cars and electric car standards. The research will continue to ensure safety across the board. The standards, like the standards before them, will evolve as the technology evolves. The federal automobile safety standards are here to stay.

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