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SEMA Action Network - Performance Politics

Mobilize now to protect your automotive hobby.

Oct 8, 2010

We are again at an election crossroads in which many voters are seeking "change." That's what this editorial is about-an opportunity to consider how changes by federal and state lawmakers impact you, the auto enthusiast. From emissions to auto equipment standards, the government is making decisions about your current and future car.

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We're all aware of the legal difficulties in owning and driving a customized ride. All gearheads feel the heat of law enforcement whose mission of "To serve and protect" seems to add the tag line of "from the automotive enthusiast" in matters pertaining to us-but none so much as the driver of a modified import. Ever been pulled over for rolling too low or sporting an exhaust that's too loud? Ever had your car impounded on suspicion of a stolen engine or missing emissions equipment, simply because there's no way for you to immediately prove the contrary? This month, our friends at SEMA's SEMA Action Network (SAN) address several points of vehicle legality you need to know.

How Loud is Too Loud?
Imagine driving down the road and getting popped for the modified exhaust on your tuned M3. Now imagine sitting on the shoulder, receiving the citation while a stock Ferrari flies past on full afterburner. This is the scene being played on state highways across the country, the result of poorly drafted or ineffective state laws and regulations. The laws on the books in these states frequently cite the manufacturer's specifications or a factory installed muffler as the basis on which vehicle exhaust noise is measured.

On this topic, states can generally be divided into two major categories: states with noise standards and states without noise standards. Most states that have sound specifications choose to measure a vehicle's noise by decibels. States that have quantifiable noise standards on the books are shaded red in the map above. These standards often go unenforced. One reason these regulations are not enforced is that they are based on an in-use standard - exhaust noise is measured while a vehicle is in motion on the highway.

Other states choose not to specify a quantifiable noise standard. These states are shown in yellow in the map above. Typical language in these states' statutes includes prohibitions on "excessive or unusual noise" from a vehicle's exhaust system. While most motorists believe that exhaust systems should not be used in a way that causes overly loud or objectionable noise, these vague provisions fail to provide a clear and objective standard for those seeking more durable exhaust systems that enhance a vehicle's appearance and increase performance.

Language that effectively limits the use of aftermarket exhausts can be found amongst both yellow and red states. Such language includes sentences such as "no person shall modify the exhaust system of a motor vehicle in any manner which will amplify or increase the noise or sound emitted louder than that emitted by the muffler originally installed on the vehicle." While such language does not specifically prohibit all modification, it does not provide any means of measuring whether a vehicle has been acceptably modified. Such language also negatively affects the aftermarket industry by placing the noise limit authority in the hands of the OEMs and ignores the fact that aftermarket exhaust systems are designed to make vehicles run more efficiently without increasing emissions.

Green on the map identifies the three states that have enacted SEMA model legislation to provide enthusiasts and law enforcement officials with a fair and enforceable alternative. The model legislation establishes a 95-decibel exhaust noise limit based on an industry standard adopted by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

Previous California law allowed modifications so long as the noise levels did not exceed the 95 decibel limit. However, the roadside enforcement of this limit was chaotic, leading to subjective, selective and improper enforcement.

Enforcement of the previous law and regulations in California, for example, resulted in many drivers being pulled over by state and local police and cited for improper modified exhaust systems despite having what they believed to be legal aftermarket exhausts. To prove our a point (and educate itself ourselves) about the widespread improper enforcement of the previous California exhaust law, SEMA conducted a series of exhaust noise tests in early April of 2001. First, we contacted California SEMA Action Network members to see how many folks had received citations for excessive or modified exhaust. We were surprised and dismayed to learn how many fit the category. We (SEMA) then invited them to have their cars tested to see if they actually complied with California law. Finally, we hired a board-certified acoustical engineer to do and did the testing according to the standards set out in California law. Long story short, of the cars we tested only one exceeded the 95db legal level.

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To remedy this problem, in 2002 SEMA helped enact a new enforcement procedure in California through its model bill. The new law forces compliance with an objectively measured standard in a fair and predictable test. Through this procedure, motorists who drive vehicles legally equipped with modified exhaust systems can confirm that they comply with California's exhaust noise standard. The California Bureau of Automotive Repair began operation of the motor vehicle exhaust noise-testing program in 2003. The law also allows courts to dismiss citations for exhaust systems that have been tested and for which a certificate of compliance has been issued. Under the program, the 40 Smog Check stations statewide that provide referee functions are performing the test. These referee stations are issuing certificates of compliance for vehicles when tests of their exhaust systems demonstrate that they emit no more than 95-decibels, under the SAE test procedure.

Engine Swaps
Hobbyists frequently ask about the rules governing engine switching in project vehicles. First of all, those engaged in engine switching activities are bound by specific state laws that may vary from state to state. Your State may make you jump through hoops, though. Take California, which has its own unique engine-switching laws. The Bureau of Automotive Repair's (BAR) website stipulates that any engine switching must not change or degrade the effectiveness of a vehicle's emission control system, and that the engine and emission control configuration on exhaust-controlled vehicles must be certified to the year of the vehicle or newer, meeting the same or more stringent new vehicle certification standards.

Having said that, there are some general guidelines one may consider. This pertains to the rules for switching the engine in production-type vehicles (but not specially constructed vehicles, street rods, kit cars and the like). The basic rule of engine switching (as opposed to installing a "replacement" engine) is that the change must do no harm. This means that the engine being installed must theoretically be at least as "clean" as the one taken out. Several requirements may define "clean" for the purposes of engine switching:

Model Year: The engine to be installed must be the same age or newer than the one being replaced. Crate engines can be used if they are configured to resemble an engine that was certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and/or the California Air Resources Board. This essentially means that the required emissions parts must be present on the engine.

Certification Level: The engine to be installed must come from a vehicle certified to meet the same or more stringent emissions standards than the one replaced.

Vehicle Class: An engine from a vehicle class such as a motor home, medium-duty truck or marine application must not be used since these engines were certified to different types of emissions standards, using different tests.

System/Equipment: When swapping in a newer engine from a later-model vehicle, all of the relevant emissions control equipment must be transferred as well. This includes the carbon canister, the catalytic converter(s) and even parts of the on-board diagnostic (OBD) system. Some states have exceptions to this requirement, but the general rule is that as much of the donor vehicle's emissions system as possible should be transferred. The vehicle will likely run more efficiently with a full transfer of the system and shouldn't cause any undue heartache.

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Of course, engine switching can be much more complex than described here, but these are good general rules to follow and should keep engine switchers out of trouble in most cases.

The hobby must work with legislators to mitigate legislation that would ban the installation of power booster systems, including nitrous oxide systems intended for off-road (track) use. The SEMA model bill aims to do just that with language that provides for the operation of a vehicle equipped for nitrous oxide, so long as the nitrous oxide is disconnected from the engine when the vehicle is operated on public roadways. Provisions in an acceptable bill may also stipulate that nitrous oxide canisters must be removed while the vehicle is being operated on the road. The SAN has been successful in getting the model bill, or a comparable variation, enacted in Maine, Virginia, Arkansas, Georgia, Nebraska, Tennessee, Mississippi and the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island.

Window Tint
Severe limits on window film light transmission and reflectance percentages continue to surface in a number of states. It is important to constantly remind state legislators to advance the industry standard of not less than 35-percent light transmittance on all windows other than the windshield, and oppose measures that would unreasonably limit the use of window tint materials.

However, not every bill aims to limit the use of window tint. A bill directing the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through a reduction in motor vehicle cabin temperature is currently moving through the California legislature. The cabin temperature of a vehicle can be lowered through the use of window tinting materials. Such a directive by the legislature would signal to regulators that tinting should be considered as a solution to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions created when drivers must idle their cars in California while waiting for them to cool down. Other states have introduced measures to provide exceptions to the limits on vehicle window tinting for drivers with sensitivity to light.

Remember the dozens of aftermarket manufacturers a few years back producing headlight amplifiers, plug-n-play HID kits, projector headlight retrofits, and the like? Remember how they all seemed to disappear around the same time? Thank the NHTSA's Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) Number 108; a 24,000-word bureaucratic epic governing the use of "lamps, reflective devices, and associated equipment" for road-going vehicles.

There are two basic types of headlight housings: reflective and projector. HID bulbs emit more light than standard halogen bulbs, and were never really intended for use in reflective housings that scatter light and tend to blind other drivers when fitted with HID bulbs. Projector housings that better focus light do a good job of curbing this problem, which is why OEs still include HIDs and projector housings in many newer cars.

In a nutshell, FMVSS 108 establishes requirements for vehicle lighting components, bans the sale and manufacture of non-compliant products, and authorizes federal agents to dish out hefty fines to companies who manufactured, import or sell them for street use. This shouldn't be viewed as a strike against enthusiasts, though. Regulations like FMVSS 108 aims to ensure consumers use products and practices that do not pose a safety threat to operators of publicly driven motor vehicles.

Chances are the products produced by those plug-n-play HID conversion kit manufacturers who left the scene a while back didn't meet DOT safety standards, or they simply didn't want to assume the responsibilities (and liabilities) of gaining approval-the same reason a few of the companies that are still around may label their products "for off-road use only".

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State officials may still have a problem with lighting mods they deem illegal, but just like the case of modified exhaust systems, many do not implement objective testing procedures for determining legality.

Vehicle Height State agencies and legislatures sometimes pursue vehicle height restrictions. A compromise between regulators and modifiers who lower vehicles from the original height can apply the standard of the "scrub line." A scrub line is an imaginary surface created if lines were drawn from the bottom of the wheel rim on one side to the bottom of the tire on the other side. When lines are drawn from both sides using a taut string, an ''X'' under the vehicle's suspension is created. A suspension or chassis component, excepting exhaust systems and sheet metal, may not be below the top portion of this ''X.'' Pennsylvania utilizes this standard for a vehicle registered in the state as a street rod, specially constructed or reconstructed vehicle. The state's minimum bumper height for all other passenger vehicles is 16 inches from some part of the main horizontal bumper bar, exclusive of any bumper guards.

Other states, such as Rhode Island, handle the issue of minimum vehicle height using the manufacturer's specified height as the standard and do not allow for deviations more than four inches from that standard. Maine uses a similar standard based on frame height with the minimum frame height limited to no less than 10 inches from the ground, unless the vehicle was originally manufactured with a frame height of less than 10 inches. In Minnesota, a lowered vehicle is measured by its bumper height and may vary up to six inches from the manufacturer's original manufactured bumper height. Many states choose simply to place limitations on maximum vehicle height. Others prohibit modification of a vehicle in a way that would cause the vehicle body or chassis to come into contact with the ground, expose the fuel tank to damage from collision, or cause the wheels to come in contact with the body.

Lobby for the Hobby
"We the people of the United States" are not just words from the first line of an old document. We are the people who love muscle cars, hot rods, street rods, tuners, replicas, off road trucks, and many other varieties of automotive pursuits that are as diverse as the country in which we live. We are also the people who have to work to protect our automotive passions from unnecessary, unfair, or well intentioned but poorly written laws and regulations. Fortunately, we the people live in a country where we can still make a difference in how we are governed.

Log onto SEMA's official enthusiast site ( and join the SEMA Action Network (SAN) for free. We already have. You can educate yourself about vehicle legality, research federal and state motor vehicle code, be alerted of legislation threatening automotive culture, and learn the top 10 ways to effectively communicate with lawmakers and make your opinions count-a system that has been proven to work. Most importantly, your involvement will be strengthening a professional organization with government representation at the federal level and in all 50 states, whose full-time staff is committed to researching laws and legislation, constructing and passing model bills to standardize vehicle law, and defending enthusiast's rights at all times. If you have no voice, you have no choice.
SEMA Action Network

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