A federal appeals court's overturning of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's final rule on vehicle tire pressure monitoring systems is garnering the gamut of reactions.
Consumer groups-which sued the agency to get the rule reversed-are jubilant, as are tire dealers and manufacturers of the direct pressure monitoring systems the final rule de-emphasized. Tire manufacturers, however, said the ruling doesn't address their chief concerns with the tire monitoring standard, while auto makers who favored indirect monitoring devices hope NHTSA will appeal the decision.
A spokesman for NHTSA said merely that the agency is studying the decision and will soon determine its course of action.
The agency could request a review of the case before the full panel of judges in the New York-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit-``though that's unusual when the decision is three-zero, as it was here,'' said Clarence M. Ditlow III, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, one of the three consumer groups that sued NHTSA over the standard. It could also take the matter directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, or it could eschew an appeal and simply comply with the court's order to rewrite the standard.
Congress directed NHTSA to create a standard mandating onboard tire pressure monitoring systems in the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Acountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act. The agency's original proposal heavily favored systems that record directly the inflation pressures on each of a vehicle's tires.
On Feb. 12, 2002, however, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) informed NHTSA that it wouldn't sign off on the rule unless the agency rewrote it to give at least equal weight to indirect systems. Indirect systems were cheaper, OMB noted, and they are typically used in tandem with anti-lock brake systems, which themselves confer a safety benefit.
OMB officials could not be reached for comment on the court's ruling.
The final rule issued June 5, 2002, was in two parts. The first part-covering the period between Nov. 1, 2003, and Oct. 31, 2006-allowed vehicle manufacturers to use either direct or indirect systems when complying with the mandate to equip all vehicles with a gross weight of 10,000 pounds or less with tire pressure monitoring devices.
The second part requires NHTSA to issue long-term standards for tire pressure monitoring by March 1, 2005, with an effective date of Nov. 1, 2006.
The Center for Auto Safety-along with Public Citizen and the New York Public Interest Research Group-threatened to sue NHTSA if it issued a standard that didn't favor direct monitoring systems. Shortly after the final rule came out, the three groups made good on their threat, arguing to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that the rule was arbitrary and capricious.
In an Aug. 6 decision, the appeals court agreed with the consumer groups and remanded the standard to NHTSA.
``Unlike direct systems, which work in virtually every instance in which one or more tires are significantly underinflated, indirect systems do not warn drivers in about 50 percent of those instances,'' said Circuit Judge Robert D. Sack, writing for the unanimous three-judge panel. ``Absent any satisfactory explanation in the rulemaking record, the adoption of a standard that permits installation of plainly inferior systems seems to us to be arbitrary and capricious.''
Judge Sack also found unconvincing NHTSA's argument that allowing auto makers to use indirect systems would make them more likely to improve those systems or develop hybrid systems.
That option ``might permit innovation, but it also permits stagnation: It allows auto makers to install current indirect systems, without any improvements, in all new motor vehicles,'' he wrote. ``Moreover, the agency's innovation argument...ignores the possibility that the costs of direct systems could be reduced.''
The way the court's decision was written was particularly important, Mr. Ditlow said, in that it essentially bars NHTSA from issuing another rule that promotes indirect systems. ``They could go to a hybrid mandate, but I'm not sure anyone really wants a hybrid mandate,'' he said. ``So their options are limited.''
Becky MacDicken, government affairs director for the Tire Industry Association , said the group was pleased with the ruling. ``From the beginning we have fully supported the use of direct systems, which are far superior to indirect,'' she said.
Also encouraged by the court's decision was SmarTire Systems Inc., the Richmond, British Columbia-based manufacturer of direct tire monitoring systems.
``We strongly support the court's decision and believe that direct tire pressure monitoring system technology is the superior approach,'' said an Aug. 11 press statement attributed to SmarTire CEO Robert Rudman.
Although the tire industry in general prefers direct monitoring, the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) is still waiting for a NHTSA ruling on what the RMA considers to be by far the most important aspect of the monitoring provision: a minimum reserve inflation pressure standard, to counteract the underinflations of 25 or 30 percent the monitoring rule will allow.
``We reiterate that whatever rule ultimately becomes final, we will still need a reserve inflation pressure requirement,'' an RMA spokesman said.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), which fought for the inclusion of indirect monitoring systems in the final rule, hopes NHTSA will appeal. The AAM filed an amicus brief for the agency in the appeals court case.
``Both direct and indirect monitoring systems provide safety benefits to consumers,'' an AAM spokesman said. ``Both are on the road now, and both should be available to consumers.''
Meanwhile, the appeals court should soon issue a timetable for NHTSA to work on a new tire pressure monitoring rule, although there is no schedule for it to do so, according to Mr. Ditlow.