NHTSA certification — it's not just a label

By Mike Kastner
NTEA Managing Director

Bob Raybuck 
NTEA Director of Technical Services

An OEM’s franchised dealer plays a vital role in safety recalls initiated by an OEM but, in addition, has its own responsibilities regarding motor vehicle safety and certification. Companies that perform work on a vehicle after it has been certified by a final-stage manufacturer may have significant certification and safety responsibilities as well.

Truck dealer responsibilities
A “dealer” is any person engaged in the sale and distribution of new motor vehicles or items of motor vehicle equipment primarily to purchasers who, in good faith, purchase any such vehicles or item of equipment for purposes other than resale. NHTSA considers a “distributor” to be engaged in the sale and distribution of motor vehicles or items of motor vehicle equipment for resale. 

One of the basic legal requirements for a dealer is found in the original safety act (National Highway Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act). It prohibits anyone from manufacturing for sale, selling, offering for sale, importing or delivering a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment unless it complies with the safety standards in effect when it was built and is covered by a certification.

Under this section, dealers must be certain that the vehicles they deliver are certified. As such, it is important that they understand the basics of certification and which certifications are required for a given truck. A truck may have several certifications by multiple companies. Depending on the vehicle delivered to the dealer, it may be incomplete or complete, and thus have different labels.

If the vehicle was sent from the OEM as an incomplete vehicle — stripped, cowl and cutaway chassis or chassis-cab — it will have an incomplete vehicle document or manual (IVD or IVM). The IVD/IVM includes a listing of each applicable safety standard followed by a conformity statement. In addition, it provides information and guidelines necessary for an analysis of each safety standard to assess what can or cannot be done to the incomplete vehicle in order to maintain the OEM certification.

An incomplete vehicle could additionally have an intermediate-stage certification (e.g., a dealer might send a new chassis-cab — incomplete vehicle — to a truck equipment distributor to lengthen the wheelbase and install a pusher axle but will send it elsewhere for later installation of a dump body). The distributor lengthening the wheelbase and installing the axle would affix an intermediate-stage certification label, and the company installing the body would affix the final-stage label.

Two important rules
Following are two key rules to note:
  • Rule 1 — All vehicles must be certified in the final stage.
  • Rule 2 — All manufacturing operations performed on a motor vehicle before the first retail sale for use (meaning licensed and titled in some U.S. state) must be certified.
Implications for vehicle alterers
Depending on the work it performs, a dealer may be as responsible for certifying the vehicle as an alterer or may have performed work on a vehicle that requires an altered certification label.

The term “alteration” refers to certain work done on a vehicle after it has been certified in the final stage but before the first retail sale for use (see Rule 2, meaning licensed and titled in some U.S. state).

If you receive a complete motor vehicle that has its complete vehicle certification from one or more manufacturers and you perform a manufacturing function that alters the vehicle prior to its first sale other than resale, you must:
  1. Allow the original certification label to remain on the vehicle
  2. Ascertain that the vehicle as altered conforms to the safety standards affected by the alterations, and
  3. Affix to the vehicle an altered vehicle certification label.
An alteration includes anything that affects a vehicle’s compliance with a safety standard or that invalidates the vehicle’s stated weight ratings. Minor changes, like the addition, substitution or removal of readily attachable components — such as mirrors or tire and rim assemblies (unless the tire and rim change affects the gross axle weight ratings or gross vehicle weight rating) — or minor finishing operations, such as painting, do not require any additional certification.

Therefore, a dealer could be an alterer and have a labeling responsibility if it performs tasks as previously described before the first retail sale. A dealer would not be an alterer, for instance, if it sent out a completed — but not delivered — pickup truck to an NTEA Distributor member for a new service body. In that case, the member company would be the alterer and be required to affix the proper label. The dealer would, however, still want to ensure that the alterer had certified the truck.

Modifiers versus alterers
A modifier is a person who works on a “used” vehicle (i.e., one that has been sold but is not intended for resale, licensed and titled). Modifications do not require a certification label, but a modifier does have a safety responsibility.

For example, an owner purchases a pickup truck that has been certified as complete by the vehicle manufacturer. After operating the vehicle for several months, the owner brings the vehicle to you to add a snowplow. As the modifications were made after the first purchase of the vehicle for purposes other than resale, you have no obligation to provide further certification.

While National Highway Traffic Safety Administration certification regulations apply only to “new” motor vehicles, there are stipulations that apply to “used” vehicles.

Federal law prohibits a manufacturer, distributor, dealer or motor vehicle repair business from knowingly making inoperative any part of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment that is in compliance with an applicable safety standard. In addition, manufacturing operations/modifications performed on used vehicles still subject the manufacturer/modifier to recall and remedy responsibilities. Therefore, any installation or work you perform on a used truck should be performed in the same manner as though it were to be certified.

Liability concerns
Every company in the manufacturing and distribution chain has liability concerns. Proper certification and documentation will help you to be prepared in the event you run into any legal concerns. 

If you are a body or equipment manufacturer, make sure that your distributor/installer (which may be a dealer) is installing and using your equipment correctly. If not, there is more likely to be a failure that could result in a safety problem, recall and possible legal action.

Truck equipment distributors, dealers, alterers and modifiers all benefit from close working relationships with the manufacturers of bodies, equipment and chassis. If you receive and follow good installation instructions, you have a better chance of avoiding liability problems. Similarly, as an OEM or body and equipment manufacturer, having good working relationships with the installers and sellers of your product will help ensure those products perform the way you intend.
Look at how the installations are done and how the truck is certified. If the manufacturer or alterer has good processes in place for certification, you can likely be more confident that they will take the same care with the work they do for you.

Learn more
For more on proper certification, visit ntea.com/vehiclecertification, review NTEA’s Commercial Vehicle Certification Guide (find details on the 2018 edition at ntea.com/certguide), and contact the technical services department at 800-441-6832 or info@ntea.com.