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.
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.
Tucker said the company advises in its owners' manuals that children not ride in the front seat of hearses, particularly because they are equipped with frontal air bags, which do not have on-off switches.
Another domestic funeral coach maker, Eagle Coach Co. near Cincinnati, followed suit, although it never heard of a child riding in the front seat. It said it wasn't that difficult to comply with the rule and that it was advised by General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. to install the devices. The company said it got a lot of calls about what "that thing" was in the back of the seat -- the anchor for the baby seat. Customers wanted to know what they were supposed to attach to the hook at the rear top of the seat.
Regulators at NHTSA said they wished Accubuilt had pressed the issue, as many petitioners do, because their intention was to grant the exemption.
"We regret any inconvenience or burden it caused to any manufacturer. We try to be responsible and accessible," said Roger Saul, director of NHTSA's Office of Crashworthiness Standards. "It's disappointing all the way around."
In May 2003 the agency told the funeral car industry it didn't have to install the baby seat anchors for the next year. But regulators did not want to grant a permanent exemption until they were sure funeral coaches were configured with only one row of seats.
"It is conceivable that a funeral coach could be built with rear seating positions in which a young child might ride. We do not believe that a coach that has rear seating positions should be excluded from the standard, since the vehicle could be used to transport a child who should be in a child restraint," the 2003 interim rule said.
Then, on Oct. 15, the agency ruled that the funeral coach companies were permanently exempt. It also came up with a new definition of a funeral coach so there wouldn't be a shadow of a doubt about the exemption. Officially, a funeral coach now is "a vehicle that contains only one row of occupant seats, is designed exclusively for transporting a body and casket, and that is equipped with features to secure a casket in place during the operation of the vehicle."
Lautermilch of Accubuilt said there were no hard feelings; he realized the delay was an oversight, especially since the issue applies to such a tiny segment of the vehicle market. In fact, Rick Gullette, Accubuilt's chief engineer, said that nothing about the rule made any sense. But he was pleased with the result. And for an industry that deals with finality, what was the rush? "It got done quicker than I expected," he said.