Automobile manufacturers operate under strict federal regulations when manufacturing vehicles, and further comply with state laws and regulations that govern vehicle equipment and accessories.
Although vehicles are manufactured to be safe and street legal across the nation, many consumers choose to modify their vehicles to improve appearance, style or performance.
Examples of dangerous vehicle accessories include:
Video Players: Although many vehicles include video players that may be watched by rear seat passengers, some drivers install video systems that may be viewed by the driver. Watching video while operating a vehicle is highly distracting and dangerous.
Headlights: High-Intensity Discharge (HID) headlights are popular, but they are potentially dangerous to oncoming traffic and are illegal in every state. For those who are inclined to consider colored bulbs, states also restrict the color of headlights and the use of a non-standard color can be very misleading to other drivers.
Fog Lights: States impose restrictions on front fog lights, normally requiring that they be white or yellow in color, limiting their brightness, restricting their layout, and possibly forbidding their activation when a vehicle's high beams are activated. Violations may distract or confuse other drivers or be potentially blinding to oncoming traffic.
Brush and Push Guards: The use of a brush guard or push guard on a vehicle may increase damage to other vehicles or injuries to the occupants of other vehicles in the event of a collision.
Black-Out Kits: Tinted covers that are applied over a vehicles lights may reduce illumination below legally required levels, and may affect other driver's perceptions of their distance from the altered vehicle during night-time driving or inclement weather.
Window Tint: A dark window tint may make it more dangerous to operate a vehicle at night or during bad weather.
Underbody Lighting: Underbody lighting may be distracting to other drivers, and may violate state laws regarding the use of colored lighting on vehicles.
Lowering and Lifting a Vehicle: The lowering or lifting of a vehicle may cause the vehicle's bumper to be closer or further from the ground than is permitted by the law, creating the possibility of a ticket. In the event of a collision, the bumper height can cause the vehicle's bumper to underride or override the bumper of another vehicle, potentially resulting in a more severe accident. The modification will also change the center of gravity of a vehicle, potentially making it more vulnerable to rollover.
Wheel Camber: Modifying the camber of a vehicle's wheels significantly reduces traction and can result in the loss of control of the vehicle.
Accessories and modifications that are less likely to endanger other drivers, but may nonetheless be unlawful, include:
License Plate Covers: License plate frames and covers may unlawfully obscure the state name, registration sticker or part of the license plate number of a vehicle. Further, license plate covers that are tinted or refractive are illegal in many states.
Items that Obstruct the Windshield: Although it's common to see people hang items from their rear view mirrors, even an air freshener or dangling crystal may be deemed to obstruct the driver's view and could potentially result in a ticket. Hang tags used as parking permits must ordinarily be removed before it is legal to drive a vehicle.
Wheel Lights: Although unlikely to contribute to an accident, lights placed on vehicle wheels are likely to violate state regulations on the placement of lights on vehicles, and may also violate state restrictions on the use of colored lights.
Exhaust Modifications: Whether installed for performance, appearance, or sound, an exhaust modification that makes a vehicle louder to operate could potentially result in a ticket for a noise violation.
Studded Tires: Although entirely practical in some states during the winter months, some states forbid any use of studded tires and other states may forbid their use except during the winter.
Rolling Coal: Modifying your vehicle to blast black exhaust not only may render it unlawful to operate under state emissions laws, some states have imposed significant fines for its public use.
In addition to federal vehicle safety standards, every state has a set of laws and regulations that restrict the modification of vehicles, covering issues ranging from window tint, to the color of lights used on the vehicle, to the minimum and maximum distance between a vehicle's bumper and the surface of the roadway.
As state laws can differ significantly, it is important to check the laws of your state before you modify your vehicle or purchase an out-of-state vehicle that has been modified by the seller or a prior owner.
Vehicle accessories that are produced by the manufacturer can be expected to comply with state law. However, care must be taken that any third party accessories are both safe and compliant with the law. Carefully review the packaging and instructional material for any modification, as some will indicate that they are for off-road use only - that is, that they are not street legal and, if installed, may make it unlawful for you to operate your vehicle on a public street.
- Some mail order merchants post false or misleading information about the safety and legality of parts and kits that they sell.
- Some body shops will install modifications that they know to be dangerous or illegal, often with the knowledge of their customer but sometimes out of recognition that if they explain that the modification is unlawful they will lose a sale.
The consequences of having an unlawful vehicle modification or accessory are twofold:
Tickets and Impound
The operator of a vehicle may be stopped and cited for an unlawful vehicle modification or accessory.
Sometimes the police will issue a fix-it ticket, allowing the driver to have the ticket dismissed upon proof that the unlawful modification or accessory has been removed from the vehicle.
The rest of the time the driver will have to pay a fine, perhaps in addition to proving that the problem with the vehicle has been corrected. In some cases the nature of the violation will result in the vehicle's being towed and impounded by the police.
When an unlawful modification or accessory contributes to an accident, the driver of the vehicle may face civil liability for injuries caused to other persons or to property as a result of the accident. Even if not in the vehicle, the owner of the vehicle is potentially liable based upon their allowing somebody to operate a vehicle that they knew or should have known was unsafe.
A company that sells an after-market modification or accessory that is not street legal, without informing the consumer that the modification or accessory is for off-road use only, may be liable for injuries caused as a result of the use of the modification or accessory on a public road. Similarly, a dealership or business that installs such a modification or accessory may be liable for injuries resulting from its use.