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NHTSA Clarifies ‘Make Inoperative’ Provisions of TPMS Regs

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In early 2011, TIA reached out to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regarding scenarios that tire retailers commonly face when servicing vehicles equipped with TPMS. TIA was specifically addressing the so-called "make inoperative" provisions of NHTSA’s TPMS regs.
According toNHTSA, if a valve stem sensor is not functioning prior to the service, then the retailer cannot violate the
Title 49, U.S. Code 30122(b) of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act (MVSA) “prohibits a manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business from knowingly making in­operative any part of a device or element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle in compliance with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard.”
TPMS is such a safety system, and, therefore, falls under these guidelines, so tire dealers and tire techs need to be aware of the recent clarification announced by NHTSA.

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Scenario 1
The first scenario TIA inquired about pertains to a retailer replacing an inoperative TPMS valve stem sensor with a traditional (non-TPMS) rubber snap-in valve stem. Question: If a consumer is made aware of an inoperative TPMS sensor and declines to purchase a new one, does the retailer violate the MVSA by removing the dead sensor and replacing it with a snap-in valve stem?

According to NHTSA, if the pressure sensor was inoperative before the customer presented the vehicle to the retailer, “a motor vehicle repair business would not be violating 49 USC 30122(b) by removing an inoperative or damaged TPMS sensor and replacing it with a standard snap-in rubber valve stem…However, a motor vehicle repair business that goes on to make any other element of the TPMS system inoperative, for example, by disabling the malfunction indicator lamp, would violate the ‘make in­operative’ provision.”

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Kevin Rohlwing, TIA senior vice president of training, says, “This is exactly why our training programs have always stressed the importance of checking the status of the TPMS prior to service. If a valve stem sensor is not functioning prior to servicing the tires and wheels, then the retailer cannot violate the ‘make inoperative’ provision because the system was already inoperative. This increases the importance of documenting an inoperable TPMS prior to any work being performed on the vehicle, especially now that the batteries in the sensors are starting to die.” 

As a side note, this begs the question if NHTSA’s response goes against the spirit of TPMS. Once the driving public learns that bringing a vehicle to a tire dealer with dead sensors gives them an option to not replace the sensors and substitute standard snap-in valves, this may accelerate a situation whereby vehicles will have inoperative TPMS. This ultimately puts pressure back on the service provider to educate consumers as to the importance of TPMS.

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Scenario 2
The second scenario focuses on aftermarket wheels and a customer’s refusal to purchase new TPMS sensors or pay for the labor to transfer the original sensors to the aftermarket wheels. NHTSA states: “We assume that the vehicle has a functioning TPMS system at the time he or she purchases aftermarket tires and wheels. In that case, a service provider would violate the ‘make inoperative’ prohibition of 49 USC 30122(b) by installing new tires and wheels that do not have a functioning TPMS system. To avoid a ‘make inoperative’ violation, the service provider would need to decline to install the new tires and rims, use the TPMS sensors from the original wheels (if they are compatible), or convince the motorist to purchase new TPMS sensors and ensure that the sensors are properly integrated with the vehicle’s TPMS system.”

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“We are admittedly surprised by NHTSA’s response that aftermarket tires and wheels must include TPMS sensors,” says Roy Littlefield, TIA executive vice president. “Based on the language in the April 2005 Final Rule, we believed that the presence of the malfunction indicator lamp would notify the driver that the TPMS was not operable as a result of their decision to decline new sensors or pay for the additional labor to install the original sensors in the aftermarket tire and wheel assemblies.

“While we have some genuine concerns regarding consumer backlash, it is clear that the federal government is requiring dealers to make sure the TPMS continues to function following the purchase of aftermarket tires and wheels,” he says.

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Scenario 3
The third scenario pertains to a service provider inadvertently breaking a non-defective sensor during service, and is “unable to locate an immediate replacement but allows the vehicle to return to service because arrangements were made to obtain and install the replacement part at a future date.” 

NHTSA’s re­sponse was: “As a general matter, a violation of the ‘make inoperative’ prohibition does not occur until a repair business allows or intends a vehicle to be returned to use…this would be true regardless of whether arrangements have been made for future repair, as there are no other exceptions to the ‘make inoperative’ prohibition in the statute.”

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“While there will be some debate over the circumstances related to inadvertent damage, there are no questions regarding the release of the vehicle,” says Rohlwing. “If the action of the service provider made a functioning TPMS inoperable, then it cannot be returned to service until the problem is solved.”  

Scenario 4
The final scenario addresses a service provider releasing a vehicle to the customer without an illuminated malfunction indicator lamp (MIL) and after being driven, the MIL illuminates.

NHTSA’s response states: “The mere illumination of the MIL after the vehicle has been released by a motor vehicle repair business to the driver would not itself be a violation of the ‘make inoperative’ provision. FMVSS 138 requires that the malfunction telltale illuminate not more than 20 minutes after the occurrence of a malfunction, meaning that the system may not detect a malfunction that occurred while the car was at the motor vehicle repair business until the car has been released to the owner and driven for some time. Whether or not a ‘make inoperative’ violation has occurred would depend only upon whether the motor vehicle repair business knowingly made inoperative an element of the TPMS system that caused the malfunction indicator lamp to illuminate.”

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It is recommended – as with any type of vehicle repair – that a post-service road test be conducted to verify the TPMS’s operational status prior to releasing the vehicle to the consumer. “Based on NHTSA’s response, we are advising tire retailers to document the status of the TPMS before and after any tire or wheel service,” concludes Rohlwing.

“If the electronic TPMS relearn or diagnostic tool includes the functionality to produce a print-out on the status of the system, we recommend that retailers give a copy to the consumer and retain a copy for their own records following service.”

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