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Unmet Needs:                          News             Analysis            

Published: 09/21/2004

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For more information . . .

New Notice of Proposed Rulemaking: FMVSS-Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems, 69 Fed. Reg. 59,855 (Sep. 16, 2004) (text or pdf)

Public Citizen's Motion to Enforce Judgment (July 14, 2004)

Government's Brief in Opposition to Motion to Enforce Judgment

Court Decision Rejecting First Proposal: Public Citizen v. Mineta, 340 F.3d 39 (2d Cir. 2003)

Rejected Tire Pressure Rule: 67 Fed. Reg. 38,704 (June 5, 2002) (text or pdf)

NHTSA Finally Issues Long-Delayed Tire Pressure Rule

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a proposed rule Sept. 16 for requiring tire pressure monitoring systems. The ruling came a full year after its first attempt at a rule was overturned by a federal court, and two months after Public Citizen returned to that same court seeking an order compelling NHTSA to stop delaying and issue a rule.

NHTSA issued the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPR), announcing the agency's intent to require a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) that alerts drivers when the air pressure in their tires becomes dangerously low. The TPMS system envisioned by the proposal would only be required to work with the tires on a vehicle at the point of sale, however, and would not be required to work with replacement tires.

The TPMS rule addresses the common hazard of driving on underinflated tires. Underinflated tires make vehicles more difficult to handle and increase the risk of crashing because of tire blow-outs, flat tires, skidding, and hydroplaning.

NHTSA was required to produce a TPMS rule by section 13 of the Transportation, Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation Act ("TREAD Act"), Pub. L. No. 106-414 (2000). Congress passed TREAD in the aftermath of the Ford-Firestone controversy.

NHTSA issued the new proposed rule after its first attempt at a TPMS rule was overturned by a federal court. During the first rulemaking, NHTSA recognized a distinction between "direct" and "indirect" systems:

  • A direct system warns a driver when any tire or tires are significantly underinflated. It functions from the moment a vehicle is turned on, operates on any road surface, and can be installed in any vehicle.
  • An indirect system, by contrast, warns a driver when (1) any single tire or combination of three tires (2) is 30 percent or more underinflated as compared to the other tires. Unlike a direct system, it cannot detect underinflation of all four tires or underinflation of two tires on the same axle or on the same side. Further, the system does not work until the vehicle has been driven for at least ten minutes, and even then it does not function on bumpy or gravel roads or at speeds above 70 miles per hour.

NHTSA recognized that a direct system would be more reliable and would prevent more harm -- 4,050 more injuries and 30 more deaths -- than an indirect system, but it opted, under White House orders, to require an indirect system.

After a federal appeals court in August 2003 rejected the indirect TPMS rule for insufficiently meeting the mandate of TREAD, NHTSA was ordered back to the drawing board. The plaintiffs in that case, Public Citizen and other consumer and safety groups, observed a pattern of delay in the year that followed the court ruling:

Document Anticipated Deadline for Final Rule
Monthly status report to Congress (Nov. 2003)     May 1, 2004
Status report (Feb. 2004) July 2004
Status report (June 2004) August 13, 2004
Unified Agenda (June 28, 2004) September 2004

Frustrated that needless deaths and injuries were occurring while NHTSA delayed action, the plaintiffs returned to court in July 2004 with a motion to compel NHTSA to comply with the court's previous judgment and issue a TPMS rule without delay.

In response to the plaintiffs' motion, NHTSA actually used its delay as evidence of progress. In its response brief, the agency pointed out that it had submitted a draft notice of proposed rulemaking to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for its approval, but OMB returned it to the agency to work on "[u]nanticipated issues requiring further analysis."

The new notice of proposed rulemaking now puts an end to that dispute, but there will still be a significant period of time before a final rule is actually issued. The NPR calls for a new comment period that will be open until as late as November 2004.