NHTSA Issues Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Seat Belt Use Warning Systems

The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act of 2012 (MAP–21) directed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to initiate rulemaking that would amend Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 208, ‘‘Occupant crash protection,” to require a seat belt use warning system for rear seats. On September 30, 2019, the agency announced an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM), seeking comment on a variety of issues related to a potential requirement for a rear seat belt warning system. The docket is open and comments must be submitted no later than November 26, 2019.

In the ANPRM, NHTSA specifically seeks comment on the vehicles to which any proposed rear seat belt warning requirements should apply. They also seek comment on whether any vehicles within the broad applicability criteria should be exempt.  NHTSA notes that they especially seek comment 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 10,000 lbs”, noting that vehicles with a larger number of rear seats may present visual signal complexities and other challenges.

According to the NPRM, “With respect to school buses, we acknowledge that a rear seat belt warning requirement might place additional cost burdens on school systems, given that such cost can lead to reductions in school bus service, resulting in greater risk to students.   We also note that school buses of all sizes offer passengers compartmentalization protection to reduce the risk of crash injury, even to the unbelted.”

NHTSA has, over time, used a variety of strategies to increase seat belt use, including sponsoring national media campaigns (such as their annual “Click It or Ticket” campaign), providing assistance to states enacting seat belt use laws and high-visibility enforcement campaigns, and facilitating or requiring vehicle- based strategies.

Seat belt warning systems are a vehicle-based strategy that encourages seat belt use by reminding unbuckled occupants to fasten their belts and/or by informing the driver that an occupant is unbelted, so that the driver can request the unbelted occupant to fasten their seat belt.  The warnings provided by seat belt warning systems typically consist of visual and/or audible signals. An optimized warning system balances effectiveness and annoyance, so that the warning is noticeable enough that the occupants will be motivated to fasten their belts, but not so intrusive that an occupant will circumvent or disable it or the public will not accept it.

FMVSS No. 208 requires a seat belt warning system for the driver’s seat, but not other seating positions. Most currently-produced vehicles also have a seat belt warning for the front outboard passenger seat, although FMVSS No. 208 does not require this.