Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association of United States, Inc v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company Consumer Alert v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company United States Department of Transportation v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company

Citation103 S.Ct. 2856,77 L.Ed.2d 443,463 U.S. 29
Decision Date24 June 1983
Docket NumberNos. 82-354,82-355 and 82-398,s. 82-354
PartiesMOTOR VEHICLE MANUFACTURERS ASSOCIATION OF the UNITED STATES, INC., et al., Petitioners v. STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY et al. CONSUMER ALERT, et al., Petitioners v. STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY et al. UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, et al., Petitioners v. STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 (Act) directs the Secretary of Transportation to issue motor vehicle safety standards that "shall be practicable, shall meet the need for motor vehicle safety, and shall be stated in objective terms." In issuing these standards, the Secretary is directed to consider "relevant available motor vehicle safety data," whether the proposed standard is "reasonable, practicable and appropriate" for the particular type of motor vehicle for which it is prescribed, and "the extent to which such standards will contribute to carrying out the purposes" of the Act. The Act authorizes judicial review, under the Administrative Procedure Act, of "all orders establishing, amending, or revoking" a motor vehicle safety standard. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), to which the Secretary has delegated his authority to promulgate safety standards, rescinded the requirement of Modified Standard 208 that new motor vehicles produced after September 1982 be equipped with passive restraints (automatic seatbelts or airbags) to protect the safety of the occupants of the vehicle in the event of a collision. In explaining the rescission, NHTSA maintained that it was no longer able to find, as it had in 1977 when Modified Standard 208 was issued, that the automatic restraint requirement would produce significant safety benefits. In 1977, NHTSA had assumed that airbags would be installed in 60% of all new cars and automatic seatbelts in 40%. But by 1981 it became apparent that automobile manufacturers planned to install automatic seatbelts in approximately 99% of the new cars and that the overwhelming majority of such seatbelts could be easily detached and left that way permanently, thus precluding the realization of the life-saving potential of airbags and requiring the same type of affirmative action that was the stumbling block to achieving high usage of manual belts. For this reason, NHTSA concluded that there was no longer a basis for reliably predicting that Modified Standard 208 would lead to any significant increased usage of restraints. Hence, in NHTSA's view, the automatic restraint requirement was no longer reasonable or practicable. Moreover, given the high expense of implementing such a requirement and the limited benefits arising therefrom, NHTSA feared that many consumers would regard Modified Standard 208 as an instance of ineffective regulation. On petitions for review of NHTSA's recission of the passive restraint requirement, the Court of Appeals held that the rescission was arbitrary and capricious on the grounds that NHTSA's conclusion that it could not reliably predict an increase in belt usage under the Standard was an insufficient basis for the resci sion, that NHTSA inadequately considered the possibility of requiring manufacturers to install nondetachable rather than detachable passive belts, and that the agency failed to give any consideration to requiring compliance with the Standard by the installation of airbags. The Court found that congressional reaction to various versions of the Standard "raised doubts" that NHTSA's rescission "necessarily demonstrates an effort to fulfill its statutory mandate" and that therefore the agency was obligated to provide "increasingly clear and convincing reasons" for its action.

Held: NHTSA's rescission of the passive restraint requirement in Modified Standard 208 was arbitrary and capricious; the agency failed to present an adequate basis and explanation for rescinding the requirement and must either consider the matter further or adhere to or amend the Standard along lines which its analysis supports. Pp. 40-57.

(a) The rescission of an occupant crash protection standard is subject to the same standard of judicial review—the "arbitrary and capricious" standard—as is the promulgation of such a standard, and should not be judged by, as petitioner Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association contends, the standard used to judge an agency's refusal to promulgate a rule in the first place. The Act expressly equates orders "revoking" and "establishing" safety standards. The Association's view would render meaningless Congress' authorization for judicial review of orders revoking safety standards. An agency changing its course by rescinding a rule is obligated to supply a reasoned analysis for the change beyond that which may be required when an agency does not act in the first instance. While the scope of review under the "arbitrary and capricious" standard is narrow and a court is not to substitute its judgment for that of the agency, the agency nevertheless must examine the relevant data and articulate a satisfactory explanation for its action. In reviewing that explanation, a court must consider whether the decision was based on a consideration of the relevant factors and whether there was a clear error of judgment. Pp. 40-44.

(b) The Court of Appeals correctly found that the "arbitrary and capricious" standard of judicial review applied to rescission of agency regulations, but erred in intensifying the scope of its review based upon its reading of legislative events. While an agency's interpretation of a statute may be confirmed or ratified by subsequent congressional failure to change that interpretation, here, even an unequivocal ratification of the passive restraint requirement would not connote approval or disapproval of NHTSA's later decision to rescind the requirement. That decision remains subject to the "arbitrary and capricious" standard. Pp. 44-46.

(c) The first reason for finding NHTSA's rescission of Modified Standard 208 was arbitrary and capricious is that it apparently gave no consideration to modifying the Standard to require that airbag technology be utilized. Even if NHTSA's conclusion that detachable automatic seatbelts will not attain anticipated safety benefits because so many individuals will detach the mechanism were acceptable in its entirety, standing alone it would not justify any more than an amendment of the Standard to disallow compliance by means of one technology which will not provide effective passenger protection. It does not cast doubt on the need for a passive restraint requirement or upon the efficacy of airbag technology. The airbag is more than a policy alternative to the passive restraint requirement; it is a technology alternative within the ambit of the existing standard. Pp. 46-51.

(d) NHTSA was too quick to dismiss the safety benefits of automatic seatbelts. Its explanation for rescission of the passive restraint requirement is not sufficient to enable this Court to conclude that the rescission was the product of reasoned decisionmaking. The agency took no ccount of the critical difference between detachable automatic seatbelts and current manual seatbelts, failed to articulate a basis for not requiring nondetachable belts, and thus failed to offer the rational connection between facts and judgment required to pass muster under the "arbitrary and capricious" standard. Pp. 51-57.

220 U.S.App.D.C. 170, 680 F.2d 206, vacated and remanded.

Sol. Gen. Rex E. Lee, Washington, D.C., argued, for petitioners in 82-398.

Mr. Lloyd N. Cutler, Washington, D.C., argued, for petitioners in 82-354.

James F. Fitzpatrick, Washington, D.C., argued, for all respondents.

Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The development of the automobile gave Americans unprecedented freedom to travel, but exacted a high price for enhanced mobility. Since 1929, motor vehicles have been the leading cause of accidental deaths and injuries in the United States. In 1982, 46,300 Americans died in motor vehicle accidents and hundreds of thousands more were maimed and injured.1 While a consensus exists that the current loss of life on our highways is unacceptably high, improving safety does not admit to easy solution. In 1966, Congress decided that at least part of the answer lies in improving the design and safety features of the vehicle itself.2 But much of the technology for building safer cars was undeveloped or untested. Before changes in automobile design could be mandated, the effectiveness of these changes had to be studied, their costs examined, and public acceptance considered. This task called for considerable expertise and Congress responded by enacting the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, (Act), 15 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq. (1976 and Supp. IV 1980). The Act, created for the purpose of "reduc[ing] traffic accidents and deaths and injuries to persons resulting from traffic accidents," 15 U.S.C. § 1381, directs the Secretary of Transportation or his delegate to issue motor vehicle safety standards that "shall be practicable, shall meet the need for motor vehicle safety, and shall be stated in objective terms." 15 U.S.C. § 1392(a). In issuing these standards, the Secretary is directed to consider "relevant available motor vehicle safety data," whether the proposed standard "is reasonable, practicable and appropriate" for the particular type of motor vehicle, and the "extent to which such standards will contribute to carrying out the purposes" of the Act. 15 U.S.C. § 1392(f)(1), (3), (4).3

The Act also authorizes judicial review under the provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. § 706 (1976), of all "orders establishing, amending, or revoking a Federal motor vehicle safety standard," 15 U.S.C. § 1392(b). Under this authority, we review today...

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