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Hearse Makers No Longer Strapped Under Car-Seat Law

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, October 26, 2004; Page E01

There's something spooky about a regulation that mandates child safety seats in hearses.

Five years ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a rule requiring all vehicle manufacturers to install standardized anchors so child safety seats would be held securely in place. Its goal was to prevent injuries caused when parents incorrectly installed the seats using existing seat belts. Vehicle manufacturers were given several years, through Sept. 1, to comply with various parts of the rule.

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The rule did not exclude hearses -- what are now politely called funeral coaches -- which are made to transport a casket and a dead body to its final resting place. The most common design includes a single front row of seats and a large area behind it to accommodate the casket.

When the proposal was issued, hearse manufacturers scratched their heads, wondering why it applied to them. The vehicles, after all, are modified with caskets, not children, in mind.

Accubuilt Inc., in Lima, Ohio, the largest domestic manufacturer of funeral coaches, petitioned NHTSA in August 2000, asking to be excused from the rule.

Accubuilt controls at least 60 percent of the funeral coach market, transforming Ford Motor Co. Lincoln Town Cars and General Motors Corp. Cadillac DeVilles into elaborate specialty vehicles. The company, for example, provided the hearse and limousines for former president Ronald Reagan's recent funeral.

"Since a funeral coach is a single-purpose vehicle, transporting body and casket, children do not ride in the front seat," Accubuilt's petition said. In fact, the usual occupants are the chauffeur, the undertaker or a member of the clergy.

Or, the passenger seat goes empty. "Not too many people want to ride in there," said Timothy Lautermilch, vice president of operations for Accubuilt.

The company hoped for a quick resolution of the problem, but because the petition got lost in the flow of other business at NHTSA, it wasn't resolved until Oct. 15.

Instead, Accubuilt found itself complying with the rule from May 2001 to May 8, 2003, when the agency made a tentative decision to exempt hearses for a year. At the time, NHTSA was busy considering other petitions for changes in the child safety seat rule. And it was in the midst of issuing rules under the new Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act in the wake of the Ford-Firestone tire problem. The petition went unanswered.

"Unbelievable, isn't it?" said Lautermilch. "We formally petitioned the agency. It was months and months later that we found out they exempted funeral coaches."

Lautermilch estimated that the company manufactured at least 1,200 vehicles with child safety seat latches. It had to design, test and install them, at a cost of an extra $30 or so per vehicle. "We take our compliance issues to heart," he said.

Accubuilt's competitors, meanwhile, were silent. They complied with the rule without complaint, as did Accubuilt. Maybe it has something to do with the quiet and solemnity of the business, but the companies did not hire a lawyer, lobbyist or consultant to take up their case with NHTSA.

James Tucker, engineering manager for Federal Coach in Fort Smith, Ark., thought the rule was weird, but the company proceeded to put the latches in some 1,500 coaches for the front center and passenger seats.

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