Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 Seat Belt - Case Law

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 208 (Standard 208 or FMVSS 208) is the regulation authorizing automobile manufacturers three expressly enumerated options in implementing the requisite restraint system. (Former 49 C.F.R. 571.208, S4. Option one authorized a frontal/angular automatic protection system. (Id., S4.1.2.1.) Option two permitted a head-on automatic protection system, plus manual lap belt for lateral crashes and rollovers, and a seat-belt warning system. (Id., S4.1.2.2; former 49 C.F.R. 571.209, S3 "'Type 1 seat belt assembly' is a lap belt for pelvic restraint".) Option three was manual lap/shoulder belts and a seat-belt warning system. (Former 49 C.F.R. 571.208, S4.1.2.3.) In addition to these three enumerated options, Standard 208 also authorized an automatic belt option "in place of" the belt system required by any of the other three options. (Former 49 C.F.R. 571.208, S4.5.3 automatic belt option.) The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concluded such a passive (automatic) belt option could consist of a two-point, i.e., shoulder belt, "system to meet the perpendicular impact protection requirements of option two." (39 Fed.Reg. 3834 (1974); see 41 Fed.Reg. 24070, fn. 2, 24072, 24076-24077 (1976) proposed revision of Standard 208 with retention of passive two-point restraint system option; 42 Fed.Reg. 34296-34297 (1977) no seat belts in front seat required where "full passive protection for front seat occupants in three crash modes: frontal, side and rollover; see also O'Bryan v. Volkswagen of America, Inc. (W.D.Ky. 1992) 838 F.Supp. 319, 322-323 noting NHTSA's interpretation that S4.5.3 automatic belt system without manual belt authorized.) In Geier v. American Honda Motor Co. (2000) 529 U.S. 861, the plaintiff claimed her Honda was defective because it did not have air bags. The Supreme Court held FMVSS 208 preempts a claim under state law that a manufacturer should have used one restraint system over another authorized under FMVSS 208. The court concluded that to allow such claims would interfere impermissibly with the objectives of FMVSS 208, which provided for a "gradual passive restraint phase-in" and afforded manufacturers specified passive restraint options. (Geier, supra, 529 U.S. at pp. 864-865, 878, 881.) The court explained: FMVSS 208 "'embodies the Secretary of Transportation's policy judgment that safety would best be promoted if manufacturers installed alternative protection systems in their fleets.'" (Geier, supra, 529 U.S. at p. 881.) Through FMVSS 208, the secretary "deliberately sought variety -- a mix of several different passive restraint systems. It did so by setting a performance requirement for passive restraint devices and allowing manufacturers to choose among different passive restraint mechanisms, such as airbags, automatic belts, or other passive restraint technologies to satisfy that requirement." (Geier, at p. 878.) This deliberate "range of choices among different passive restraint devices . . . would bring about a mix of different devices introduced gradually over time" and thereby "lower costs, overcome technical safety problems, encourage technological development, and win widespread consumer acceptance -- all of which would promote FMVSS 208's safety objectives." (Geier, at p. 875.)