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Is there a Lifetime Warranty on Car Seatbelts?

Car and truck in traffic

Is there a Lifetime Warranty for Seatbelts?

There is a rumor that federal law creates a lifetime warranty for seatbelts. This is not the law.  But this raises another question.  Could the United States require such a lifetime warrany without Congress passing a special law?  This raises an interesting legal quesiton.  Who regulates car safety in the United States and who creates seatbelt safety rules?   

Yes, this simple question has opened a legal can of worms.   And in 2024 you will see major discussion on CNN, Fox etc about this very issue.  So FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS, here are the rules.

NHTSA Sets Standards Through Delegated Powers

Seatbelts and car safety standards are delegated by Congress to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). When Congress delegates power to administrative agencies these are very broad powers. You will hear presidential candidates state that on day one they will make certain changes. The “Day One” power is exercised by forcing the heads of these administrative agencies to enforce or not enforce current regulations or make new ones. This agency power is why a president such as President Biden, can make sweeping changes to how gas and oil are distributed or developed even as Congress cannot or will not act one way or the other.

What are the Seatbelt Rules Right Now?

For cars, the safety power has been exercised in many ways. Most notable is Standard No. 208, Occupant crash protection (49 CFR 571.208), which requires safety belts to be installed at certain seating positions in new motor vehicles. There is also Standard No. 209, Seat belt assemblies (49 CFR 571.209). This sets the rules for how well a seatbelt must work. It sets specific metrics for performance. It applies to seatbelts in new cars or replacement seatbelts.

One might argue that a seatbelt is a simple device that should last 10 years, 20 years or longer without modification or repair. A lawyer could argue that any seatbelt failure is due to an initial hidden manufacturing defect and therefore the car manufacturer should fix it under warranty. Whether this wins or not is a different discussion but you should know that there is no regulation or statutes that requires manufacturers to provide a lifetime warranty for seat belts.

The closest we come to a “lifetime warranty” is the fact that the NHTSA has the authority to require manufacturers to replace seat belts if the car is ten years old or less. If the seatbelt never met NHTSA regulations the NHTSA can compel the car manufacturer to make the repair withotu charge.

As reported in the Federal Register on 09/07/2023:

In 2019 there were 36,355 auto fatalities in the U.S. It increased in 2020, to and in 2021 to 42,939. Seatbelts were cited as a major protective factor and usage rates for seat belts in rear seats have consistently been below those for the front seats.

This argument was in favor of a new rule requiring rear seatbelt (not being used) warning systems. From a legal standpoint, this and the other rules must be published to the public and then there must be time for public comment. The actual authority for making and enforcing the rule is (again) the principal that Congress passes a vague law and lets an agency put the law into effect. The Administrative Procedure Act (APA) governs the process by which federal agencies develop and issue regulations. It includes requirements for publishing notices of proposed and final rulemaking in the Federal Register, and provides opportunities for the public to comment on notices of proposed rulemaking.

How Does the APA and Federal Regulation Work?

For a more detailed (complicated) version of how the APA works, here is how the Federal Register explained this:

This proposal is issued pursuant to NHTSA's authority under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (49 U.S.C. 30101

et seq.) (Safety Act), which authorizes NHTSA to establish Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The statute requires safety standards to be objective, practicable, and meet the need for safety, among other things. NHTSA has tentatively concluded that the proposed requirements satisfy these statutory criteria.

This NPRM also continues NHTSA's response to a rulemaking mandate in MAP–21. MAP–21 required DOT (NHTSA, by delegation) to initiate a rulemaking proceeding to require rear seat belt warnings and directed the agency to issue a final rule unless the rule would not meet the Safety Act requirements for an FMVSS.

So hopefully this blog helps explain not only what the rules are for seatbelt warranty but also shares a little known but critical function of our government - administrative agency rule making.  The scope of the APA and administrative rule making is a hot button U.S. Supreme Court issue so keep your ears open for new case decisions.

Daniel Horowitz is lead counsel at Lawyers in Lafayette.  He is a television legal commentator and noted trial lawyer.