Five Powersports Laws That Affect You

There are five motor vehicle laws that dramatically affect the motorcycle industry, and thus you the powersports vehicle user, in significant ways. Whatever side of the industry you are on: buying, selling, servicing, or what have you, it helps to know about these landmark pieces of legislation. The five laws are the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), the 1975 Model Year law, Magnuson-Moss, the so-called Lemon Law, and the infamous and pervasive Clean Air Act.

1. The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)
Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) # 571.115, was written in 1979, to be effective the following--1980--production season, i.e. model year 1981. Though VIN systems have been established internationally, each nation has some freedom as to the composition of its system. Many use fewer than 17 digits, for example, for models not sold in the U.S., whereas all vehicles sold for street use in the U.S. are required to have 17 digits. Trailers, boats and other vehicles also have fewer than 17 characters. What is consistent is that however many characters are used, all of them are grouped into three sections, each of which is tightly defined by law, a unique and heretofore unknown thing. The first section of the VIN uniquely identifies the manufacturer, the second the vehicle, and the third the model year and production number. There is now much on the Internet about these sections, so look for that if interested.

The VIN law states its purpose as, "To simplify vehicle information retrieval and reduce the incidence of accidents by increasing the accuracy and efficiency of vehicle defect recall campaigns." That's a mouthful. Some have interpreted this to read like an Orwellian populace control act. No doubt it adds to the government's control of our vehicles, and hence to us. But I think its stated objective of throwing a wider net around vehicles for safety recall purposes is a noble goal that can't be minimized, whatever the sociological implications.

The lifetime of a VIN is 30 years. That is, the law prohibits any two VINs from being identical within a 30-year period. After that, they can be, and this has already been observed. The 9th character from the left is a "check digit," i.e. security feature designed primarily as a double-check to ensure the accuracy of VIN transcription (writing it down on paper). When entered into a state computer system on which the secret (but now widely Internet circulated) formula has been pre-programmed, an incorrectly copied-down VIN should immediately be detected. Would-be VIN modifiers will be foiled as well, originally a secondary benefit but now thanks to the Internet a benefit no longer. The check digit is derived from a simple formula which applies numeric value to some of the characters and then multiplies and adds them in a certain sequence. The 10th character from the left is the model year, one of the most important codes to powersports repair shops. The law goes on to define much about how VINs are to be created, including such parameters as that the characters stamped into the frame must be Sans Serif (no feet), a minimum of 4 mm tall, and must not include the letters "I", "O" or "Q." There is a lot in the VIN. Vehicles made in quantities under 500 are indicated by a "9" as the 3rd character. Nominal horsepower ratings are even included.

Oddly enough, people all over have heard the term "VIN" and apply it to the idea of a serial number in general, no matter the year. This is incorrect. Before 1981, there was no VIN. Everything before then was simply a serial number. Serial numbers, while useful, were not regulated in any way, leading to all sorts of different configurations and meanings. VINs changed all that. Incidentally, other FMVSS laws have greatly affected motorcycles. There have been many, some of which have mandated such things as left side shift, how far apart the turn signals must be, the maximum wattages of lights, etc.

2. The 1975 Model Year Split
Even before the VIN system was created, some interesting things were happening to powersports serial numbers. Manufacturers were enhancing the salability of leftover models by affixing the next year's id plates to them, among other things. Nothing prohibited this. Legislation made effective for the 1975 model year put a stop to it, however, by requiring two dates on each id plate. One is the manufacturing year, the other the model year. In this way consumers were to be better informed. The upshot of this is that vintage motorcycle owners can sometimes be unsure as to the model year of their machine if older than a 75 model, and must therefore resort to the many collector's data resources that are available to clear this up, and not the old "before and after September" rule, for reasons already stated. Such documents as manufacturer's model identification books, where they exist, as well as compendiums of specifications lists put together by enthusiasts, revealing such things as types of fasteners or lighting equipment or taillight sizes that changed from year to year, things that previous owners aren't likely to have changed.

Now that we have manufacturing dates as well as model dates, folks are busily playing the game of "how early is my bike really?". It's a non-sensical exercise inasmuch as whatever the id plate says is the model year, is in fact the model year, regardless of when it was made. People used to be believe that if made after September, then the bike was the following year's model. This idea started because at one time, manufacturers used to hold their dealer meetings in October to reveal their next year's models. They have changed this in recent years, so this is no longer reliable, not to mention unnecessary, because that works only on pre-1975 models anyway. Similarly, and adding to this, many state motor vehicle registration agencies have taken the easy way out on bikes made before the 1975 model year and simply assigned as the model year the year they -- the agencies -- first registered the vehicle. This is unfortunate to the collector and the purist, but not really game-changing, for as explained above, collectors have long known to determine actual model year by equipment fitted. It's relatively reliable.

3. Magnuson-Moss
Of the handful of laws which most affect the motor vehicle trade, none has been as far-reaching as those affecting warranties, and of these, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty-Federal Trade Commission Warranty Improvement Act, generally referred to as simply Magnuson-Moss, is king. Conceived by the late Warren Magnuson, the illustrious six-term Washington state senator who authored the Civil Rights Act and federalized public education, and Frank Moss, the Utah congressman responsible for removing cigaratte ads from television, Magnuson-Moss is a comprehensive definition of what manufacturer’s' warranties must and must not look like. It was signed into law on January 4, 1975 by then-President Gerald Ford.

Magnuson-Moss "puts teeth into" state warranty law by establishing federal minimum standards for warranties. It doesn’t require warranties, only what is in them. For the most part, it puts a limit on the extent of the customer'’s responsibility, establishes procedures by which manufacturers must remedy qualified defects, and puts controls on service contracts. In short, the consumer got a load of benefits because Magnuson-Moss lays down the rules all warranties must follow. It's Magnuson-Moss for example that mandates the inclusion of the following statement in every "limited" warranty, that is, any that states any specific conditions for coverage, which of course all motor vehicle warranties do:

"Some states do not allow the exclusion or limitation of incidental or consequential damages, so the above limitation or exclusion may not apply to you."

The Act benefits consumers of all products, and although it was amended several times in its first few years and has been reinterpreted in recent times, the law’'s comprehensiveness and applicability to the real-world needs of the customer make Magnuson-Moss, decades later, a lasting and still very relevant tribute to fair commerce.

For the motor trade, three outcomes of the Act so profoundly affect the producer/consumer relationship that people on both sides of the counter need to be aware of them. First, Magnuson-Moss prohibits a manufacturer or his representative from conditioning warranty benefits on adherence to the use of factory authorized service or parts. Oil filters, for example. Unless the manufacturer can tie the use of an aftermarket oil filter to the engine damage, for example, he can't deny warranty coverage. All that is required is that the consumer make "reasonable and necessary maintenance" efforts, which in practical terms means as little as keeping receipts for purchases of oil and spark plugs. Second, the law makes illegal the policy of some dealers who refuse to do legitimate warranty work on a customer'’s machine merely because it was purchased from another dealer. Speaking practically, many OEMs look the other way when their dealers use this on their customers, though their contracts with their dealers specifically prohibit it. But the law exists and can definitely challenge the practive. Third, Magnuson-Moss makes warranties, though voluntary on the part of the manufacturer, so much a part of the sale of a vehicle that the warranty has become a part of the vehicle, a feature. Manufacturers now compete heavily on the basis of those warranty provisions. An example of this is Kawasaki's Concours, which has a two-year warranty in Europe but a three-year warranty in the U.S. where the machine is less popular. There is of course much more to Magnuson-Moss, but these three sample provisions of the law make it definitive, watershed regulation and help illustrate the importance of the Act to the consumer.

Many don't realize that Magnuson-Moss also prohibits a manufacturer from "voiding" a warranty. Although manufacturers frequently threaten the end-user with this so-called voiding, Magnuson-Moss makes this concept tacitly illegal, and has since 1975. This is not to say a manufacturer can't decide a certain failure isn't covered under warranty. They can, because all motor vehicle warranties are what are called "limited" warranties, meaning they have clauses, i.e. conditions. They are not guarantees, in other words, such as you might find at a tool store. You know, break this ratchet and you automatically get a new one. But the notion of th wholesale voiding of the warranty for the whole bike is a myth. It is not possible except where the warranty describes it beforehand, such as for special use conditions the manufacturer clearly delineates in the warranty policy statement, things like racing, rental, taking the vehicle out of the country, etc. The bottom line is the manufacturer can't for example, get away with stating that the front wheel bearing failure isn't covered because of the aftermarket exhaust the user fitted. Can't happen. A causal link has to be demonstrated. However, it is kind of touchy. Because if regular power-washing was done on this same bike, now there is such a link, between the power washing and the wheel bearing failure. Or, going back to the exhaust, if an aftermarket exhaust and an exhaust valve failure, there is a link. So you see how it works. All in all, though, the consumer got with Magnuson-Moss many times more rights than they ever had before, and that makes this law the unmatched liberator, the Magna Carta in the warranty realm.

4. Lemon Laws
Within a very short time (by 1978), Magnuson-Moss resulted in some similarly very progressive legislation almost universally now referred to as "Lemon Laws." Correctly known as "Breach of Warranty" laws, these are state laws which began on the east coast in the late 70’s and are now found nationwide, though not in all 50 states. Although different for every state, most statutes follow the same general theme: that a new vehicle may be returned to the manufacturer for a refund or replacement if warrantable defects are not remedied within a specified number of attempts over a specifically defined period of time. While Magnuson-Moss codifies how the manufacturer must respond, the states specify the number of attempts and number of days out of service, and they all vary. In fact, a few states don't even have lemon laws, and several have them only for certain kinds of vehicles, excluding for example motorcycles, for who knows what reasons. But as an outcome of Magnuson-Moss "Lemon Laws" have added even more avenues of recourse in the event of non-repairable manufacturing defects.

What this means to the consumer is that when the shop fails to fix something right the first time on a new vehicle, this seriously affects the dealer entirely apart from any safety consideration. In most cases, upon nearing the typical 30 days duration in the shop, manufacturers get really anxious about doing something to make the warranty repair happen quickly, to avoid having to replace the vehicle. Replacement is not a good thing from the manufacturer’'s point of view, as it is expensive, and the situation is particularly bad if the delay has been the dealer'’s fault, in which case the dealer'’s relationship with the manufacturer will definitely suffer.

5. The Clean Air Act
The Clean Air Act of 1955 is recognized as the first federal legislation formally addressing motor vehicle exhaust emissions. Revised in 1960, it resulted in the first crankcase vapor control systems, and with its expansion in 1965, established the California Air Resources Board (ironically, CARB). More changes came during 1966 and 1967, and in 1969 then-President Nixon wrote the law which ultimately led to the 1970 creation of the insidiously draconian Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA worked with Congress to coerce manufacturers into researching new technology, and established national air quality standards, including a 95% reduction in emissions from new autos by 1975. The Act’'s 1977 amendment, which became effective on the following January 1 (1978), and which cut allowable exhaust emissions in half, is perhaps the most significant to the powersports industry, as it for the first time specifically targeted motorcycles. The 1977 amendment also required manufacturers to add emissions warranties to their regular written warranties, which spell out the emission-related vehicle parts the federal government requires to last a specified time, almost universally longer than the standard warranty. This last provision sounded the death knell to points-based ignition systems, for example, due to their frequent service requirement. The amendment also added tampering consequences such as $10,000 fines, and many powersports shops, as well as the manufacturers themselves, have had to pay these significant fines because of this legislation. Just this year (2013), two manufacturers had to pay fines based on the number of vehicles the EPA regarded as "under the radar" and thus subject to non-compliance charges. Aftermarket companies are not immune either, and in fact come under even more scrutiny.

The Clean Air Act is ultimately reaponsible for many of what powersports riders call "emissions laws," including dumbed-down motorcycle camshafts between 1960 and 1990, crankcase recirculation systems beginning in the middle 1970s, severely restricted ignition timing between 1978 and 1985, and choked carburetion after 1977 (and especially at the 1980 point) -- the carburetion in particular becoming progressively worse until fuel injection came along. And much more. Even today's fuel injected vehicles bear the marks of The Act. Ever wonder why your modern fuel-injected bike takes so long to warm up? Many do, and it is traceable to too-early coolant thermostat opening cycles, which are in turn due to emissions regulations. Yes, the thermostat is an emissions device.

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© 1996-2013 Mike Nixon