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5 Must-Know Legal Issues For Every Import Owner

Luke Munnell
Sep 27, 2010
Photographer: Staff

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 too loud of an exhaust? 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) help us address five points of vehicle legality you need to know.

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Your exhaust is probably legal.

The number-one reason owners of modified imports say they're pulled over is for the aftermarket exhaust installed on their car. The truth is that as long as an aftermarket exhaust doesn't compromise a car's emissions equipment (it's catalytic converter, for example), the federal government, via the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is cool with it.

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State law is a different matter, and while no state bans replacement exhaust systems outright (since no stock system lasts forever), most stipulate that a replacement exhaust must remain "largely faithful" to the design of the original, and cannot be made or modified to increase output of engine noise.

States colored red on the map to the right are those that have quantifiable noise standards on the books-a good thing, if not for the fact that many of these noise limits apply to vehicles in motion on a public road, and thus are difficult to measure and enforce. States in green have adopted SEMA's model legislation, establishing a standard 95dB maximum sound output for light car exhausts (which most of today's exhaust manufacturers strive to meet), along with a process by which exhaust output can be tested and verified.

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But the vast majority of states, represented in yellow, have no objective standard for exhaust legality. Many times a police officer is given the sole authority to determine whether or not an exhaust emits what he/she considers to be "excessive or unusual noise".

Your engine swap could be illegal.

Like laws regarding aftermarket exhausts, the feds are generally straightforward in matters dealing with engine swaps (referred to as "engine switching" in legal circles). In a document titled "Engine Switching Fact Sheet", the EPA states that-aside from imported engines that can't be certified for any vehicle sold in this country (like that SR20DET engine in your 240SX)-it "will not consider any modification to a certified configuration to be a violation of federal law if there is a reasonable basis for knowing that emissions are not adversely affected."

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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.

Switching engines from different manufacturers, or to those with a different number of cylinders or that are aspirated differently than stock is expressly "not recommended", but isn't directly prohibited. As long at the installed engine and host chassis retain all of their original emission control equipment, the engine and chassis are from the same class of vehicle (light passenger, for example), can pass a complete smog inspection, and receive a BAR vehicle identification label, they can be made legal-provided the new engine and donor vehicle are properly registered with the state where necessary. If your swapped car doesn't meet all of these criteria, it's not technically legal for road use in California and possibly other states.

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How low you can go.


Nearly as frustrating as being singled out by law enforcement for having an "excessively loud" exhaust is getting popped on a low ride height violation. All states have laws governing vehicle height on the books; California has two. Section 24008 of the California Vehicle Code uses language that is common among many states, stipulating that any portion of a light passenger vehicle's chassis or suspension (disregarding low-hanging exhausts or mud flaps) may not be lower to the driving surface than the distance between the bottom of the vehicle's rim and the driving surface. The obvious workaround here is to use low-profile tires, which decrease that distance. California vehicle code 24400 states that the middle of a vehicle's headlight cannot be lower than 22 inches from the driving surface-nothing an adjustable suspension can't fix. But in many other states, what's "too low" is left up to an officer of the law to decide.

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Shedding Some 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.

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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 and authorizes federal agents to dish out hefty fines to companies who manufacture, import, or sell non-compliant products for street use. But this isn't exactly a strike against enthusiasts. Regulations like FMVSS 108 aim to protect consumers by placing the responsibility to create and sell a safe product on vendors and retailers. Remember those plug-n-play HID kit manufacturers who left the scene a while back? Chances are their products didn't meet DOT safety standards, or they simply didn't want to assume the responsibilities (and liabilities) of gaining approval-the same reason many of the companies that are still around label their products "for off-road use only". Since FMVSS 108 relieves the consumer of some liability, on the federal level, installing lighting products like those listed above may not be illegal for consumers if they're lead in good faith to believe that they're compliant.

State officials may still have a problem with lighting mods they feel don't meet the federal standards, but again, many states do not implement objective testing procedures for determining legality.

85 is the new 116.


High-octane fuel is vital for the performance and longevity of high-performance engines. If California's adopting 91(RON+MON)/2 as the maximum octane rating of fuel to be sold at street pumps years ago wasn't bad enough, consider Enforcement Advisory Number 397, released earlier this year by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which announced plans to enforce a ban on the use of certain gasoline in all but "racing vehicles".

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Leaded fuels and certain race gas have been banned for street use for decades, but those of us who competed our street-driven cars at the track were always free to fill with whatever lets our cars perform their best come race day-provided we never use that fuel on a public road. Advisory Number 397 aims to change all that by requiring vendors of fuels not recognized by California's Reformulated Gasoline Regulations (RFG) to immediately stop selling such fuels to anyone except owners of dedicated "racing vehicles"-competitive vehicles that can never be plated or driven on public roads, as CARB defines the term. Hoping to fill up your street car with C16 on the dyno to churn out that big number? Forget about it if this goes into effect. Same with filling up at the track to chase down that street-class win you've been prepping for. And what about that fully built, F22C-powered sand rail the shop down the street just finished? If it was built just for weekend fun, it'll be running 91.

Fortunately there is an immediate work-around in E85 ethanol: a street-legal, government-subsidized fuel that burns cooler, carries the equivalent of a 105-octane rating, and costs less than premium pump gasoline in many areas. Some retrofitting is needed for most cars to run E85, and it's not yet widely distributed, but the benefits are plentiful-especially in turbocharged applications, where E85 reduces operating temperatures, staves off detonation, and spools turbos better than comparable gasoline fuels. And with a little tweaking, E85-configured vehicles can be tuned to run blends all the way up to pure ethanol (E100) for an even more powerful race-day kick.

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Create Change
In each of the scenarios above there is a larger problem lurking. Exhaust legislation is a continual hindrance to enthusiasts, who are quick to point out that adding an aftermarket exhaust frees up power, thus decreasing fuel consumption and emissions. The same can be said regarding vehicle ride height legality and the fact (proven by the likes of Mercedes-Benz and General Motors), that lowering a car decreases drag, again decreasing fuel consumption and emissions. But the real danger lies in the precedent set by codes that are not objectively defined, and cannot objectively be enforced.

Speaking from experience, I can promise you the properly aimed HID bulbs that have been in our Project DC2's factory projector headlights for the past three years drastically increase visibility compared to stock halogens, without hindering the visibility of other drivers-an improvement to safety that could potentially land me a citation, and the manufacturer of our HID kit a hefty fine. And I can't even begin to count the number of clean, safe, fuel-efficient, yet fast cars we've come across that can never be made street legal simply because their modifications won't pass a visual smog test. On the subject of race gas legality, enthusiasts running race fuel on private property has never been a problem, even if it was in their street cars at the track on the weekends. Vehicles filled with race gas cruising the streets may have been (even if in arguably insignificant numbers), but enforcing legality on public roads should never cost enthusiasts their freedoms off them.

You could go on modifying your import however you please, dodging the rollers and hoping for the best. We wish you luck. But that's a temporary solution to problems that will only get worse for enthusiasts unless we represent ourselves to those with the ability to create change. Taking the proper steps, it's surprisingly easy to do.

Log onto SEMA's official enthusiast site (www.semasan.com) and join the SEMA Action Network (SAN) for free-we already have. You can 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's been proven to work. Most importantly, your involvement will strengthen a professional organization with government representation in all 50 states and at the federal level, whose full-time staff is committed to researching laws and legislation, constructing and passing model bills to standardize vehicle law, and defending enthusiasts' rights at all times. We have a voice. Let's make it count. www.semasan.com

By Luke Munnell
295 Articles

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