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Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards; Occupant Crash Protection

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

American Government Topics:  National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards; Occupant Crash Protection

Barry Felrice
Federal Register
September 28, 1994

[Federal Register: September 28, 1994]


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DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

49 CFR Part 571

 
Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards; Occupant Crash Protection

AGENCY: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), DOT.

ACTION: Petition for rulemaking; denial.

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SUMMARY: This notice for rulemaking to amend Standard No. 208, Occupant 
Crash Protection, to disallow the use of the word ``WARNING'' as an 
alternative to the word ``CAUTION'' at the heading of an air bag 
information label on the sun visors of an air bag equipped vehicle. 
NHTSA is denying this petition because the agency believes that, in 
common usage, the words ``caution'' and ``warning'' are synonymous and 
that either word properly achieves the intended effect.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:  Mr. Daniel Cohen, Chief, Frontal 
Crash Protection Division, Office of Vehicle Safety Standards, NRM-12, 
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 400 Seventh Street SW., 
Washington, DC 20590. Telephone: (202) 366-2264.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: On September 2, 1993, NHTSA published a 
final rule (58 FR 46551) requiring that manufacturers install air bags 
to satisfy automatic crash protection requirements for the front 
outboard seating positions in certain motor vehicles, beginning on 
September 1, 1996. The final rule also requires that three labels 
bearing specified information related to air bags be placed in air bag-
equipped vehicles. S4.5.1(b)(1) of the rule requires one label to be 
permanently affixed to the sun visor of each front seating position 
with an air bag. This label would have read:

Caution

To Avoid Serious Injury:

For maximum safety protection in all types of crashes, you must 
always wear your safety belt.
Do not install rearward-facing child seats in any front passenger 
seat position.
Do not sit or lean unnecessarily close to the air bag.
Do not place any objects over the air bag or between the air bag and 
yourself.
See the owners manual for further information and explanations.

    On October 29, 1993, American Suzuki Motor Corporation (Suzuki) 
submitted a ``request for interpretation'' regarding the wording of the 
sun visor label. Suzuki requested that manufacturers be permitted to 
use the signal word ``WARNING'' as an alternative to the signal word 
``CAUTION'' in the heading. Suzuki pointed out that the American 
National Standards Institute (ANSI) had issued a standard (Z535.4-1991) 
for signal words on product safety signs and labels. The standard 
contains a hierarchy of signal words signifying different degrees of 
potential personal injury. In this hierarchy, ``caution'' signifies a 
potential for ``minor or moderate injury,'' and ``warning'' indicates 
the possibility of ``death or serious injury.'' Since accommodating 
Suzuki's request would require a change in the wording permitted by the 
regulation, instead of an interpretation of the existing wording, it 
was treated by NHTSA as a petition for rulemaking.
    On March 10, 1994, NHTSA published a notice (59 FR 11200) 
responding to two petitions for reconsideration of the September 2 rule 
and three requests for interpretation of that rule (including 
Suzuki's). In response to Suzuki's request, the agency stated:

    NHTSA added the phrase ``CAUTION, TO AVOID SERIOUS INJURY'' in 
the final rule to ``attract occupants' attention to the label and 
provide a brief statement of the risks of improper use and 
consequences.'' NHTSA concluded that substitution of the word 
``WARNING'' would also achieve these goals, and is therefore 
permitting its use.

NHTSA therefore amended S4.5.1(b)(1) of Standard 208 to permit 
manufacturers to use either word in the required air bag label.
    In a petition dated May 12, 1994, Advocates for Highway and Auto 
Safety (Advocates) requested that NHTSA reverse its decision to permit 
the word ``WARNING'' as a substitute for the word ``CAUTION.'' 
Advocates styled its petition as a ``petition for reconsideration of an 
interpretation.'' However, the challenged action was a regulatory 
amendment, rather than an interpretation. Advocates' petition was 
received too late to be treated as a petition for reconsideration of a 
regulation under 49 CFR Sec. 553.35. Therefore, NHTSA is treating the 
letter as a petition for rulemaking.
    The petition sets forth substantial and procedural objections to 
the March 10 amendment. As to substance, Advocates believes that the 
word ``WARNING'' will cause vehicle occupants to be unnecessarily 
concerned. It disagrees with NHTSA's conclusion that ``CAUTION'' and 
``WARNING'' are equivalent, citing the stronger nature of the word 
``WARNING'' in the ANSI hierarchy of signal words. Advocates added that 
it thought the entire label concept was unnecessary, but that it 
reluctantly accepted the September 2 final rule's use of the word 
``CAUTION'' because it was less aggressive than the word `'WARNING.'' 
It believes that ``[t]he message now conveyed is clearly one of danger 
of likely serious injury'' (emphasis added).
    The agency did not rely on the ANSI standards when deciding to 
permit the use of the word ``WARNING.'' In fact, Suzuki's petition was 
granted based on the conclusion that the words ``WARNING'' and 
``CAUTION'' would achieve the same results since they have similar 
meanings. This similarity is evident in the following dictionary 
definitions:

Random House Dictionary of the English Language (unabridged):
    caution  a warning against danger or evil; anything serving as a 
warning
    warning that which serves to warn, give notice or caution
Webster's Third International Dictionary (unabridged):
    caution  a warning or admonishment especially in counselling 
vigilance, due attention or consideration, safety or reservation
    warning  a notice, bulletin or signal that serves to caution of the 
approach of danger

Moreover, the latter dictionary lists the two words as synonyms.
    The agency believes that it is more appropriate to base its 
decision about these two words on the similarity of their dictionary 
definitions than on the ANSI standard. The public is presumptively 
familiar with the common usage and meaning of these words, as reflected 
in their dictionary definitions. Conversely, all but an extremely small 
portion of the public is likely unaware of the ANSI standards.
    Given the similarity of the dictionary definitions, the agency 
believes that the public will not have any greater reaction to the use 
of ``WARNING'' than to ``CAUTION.'' Either word choice provides an 
appropriate attention-getting visual cue. However, it is worth noting 
that, if the ANSI distinctions were to be applied in determining the 
appropriate word, the stronger work, ``WARNING,'' would be preferable 
to ``CAUTION'' because it more accurately describes the potential 
degree of injury.
    NHTSA also notes that S5.5.2 of Standard 213, Child Restraint 
Systems, requires that each rear-facing child seat bear a label that 
contains the signal work ``WARNING,'' advising that the seat should not 
be used in air bag-equipped seating positions. NHTSA has difficulty 
understanding Advocates' strong reaction to the word ``WARNING'' on the 
sun visor label given that it did not object to requiring that the same 
signal word be placed on the child safety seat itself.
    Advocates also is particularly concerned about the possibility that 
the word ``WARNING'' will cause some people to want to deactivate the 
air bag. NHTSA is considering a request from the American Association 
of Automobile Manufacturers for a rulemaking that would permit a manual 
cutoff switch for the passenger side air bag in vehicles with no rear 
seat. The purpose of the cutoff switch would be to allow drivers to 
deactivate the air bag in that passenger seating position when a rear-
facing infant safety seat is placed there. Advocates speculates that 
the two rules would have a detrimental synergistic effect. It believes 
that some passengers in these vehicles would use the cutoff switch to 
disable their air bags, not for the intended purpose of protecting an 
infant in a safety seat, but because they are frightened by the word 
``WARNING.''
    Advocates' concern is premature, speculative, and addressed to the 
wrong forum. NHTSA has not made any judgment about what, if any, kind 
of cutoff switch it might eventually permit. When NHTSA issues an NPRM, 
it will provide Advocates and other members of the public with an 
opportunity to submit comments to the rulemaking docket for that rule.
    Advocates also posed a procedural objection to the agency's 
permitting the use of ``WARNING.'' It believes that it had the right to 
submit its views on the use of the word ``WARNING.'' Advocates states 
that it relied to its detriment on what it said was NHTSA's 
representation in the final rule that only the term ``CAUTION'' would 
be used. It stated that the choice of terminology should be determined 
through rulemaking instead of interpretation. Advocates believes that, 
as part of that rulemaking, the ANSI scheme should have been presented 
to the public for comment. Advocates apparently did not realize that 
the Suzuki request was treated as a petition for rulemaking, even 
though the March 10 rule stated that the September 2 rule was being 
amended, something that cannot be done through an interpretation.
    While the Administrative Procedure Act requires notice and comment 
procedures for most substantive rules, such procedures are not needed 
for minor technical amendments, such as permitting the use of a synonym 
on an information label. Since ``CAUTION'' and ``WARNING'' are synonyms 
in common usage, the addition of ``WARNING'' will have no practical 
impact on the public's understanding of and reaction to the label. 
Thus, the amendment allowing the word ``WARNING'' was essentially 
technical in nature. Further, the agency had already obtained public 
comment on essentially the same issue as a result of the December 14, 
1992 notice of proposed rulemaking regarding the wording of the label. 
Accordingly, an additional opportunity for comment was not required.
    Based on the foregoing, there is no reasonable possibility that the 
order requested in the petition will be issued at the conclusion of a 
rulemaking proceeding. Therefore, this petition is denied.

    Authority: 49 U.S.C. 322, 30111, 30162; delegations of authority 
at 49 CFR 1.50 and 501.8.

    Issued on September 22, 1994.
Barry Felrice,
Associate Administrator for Rulemaking
[FR Doc. 94-23910 Filed 9-27-94; 8:45 am]
BILLING CODE 4910-59-P-M

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