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Stop Trail Closings! Are We Losing Ground?

Closed Trailhead
Tom Morr | Writer
Posted December 1, 2010

Can The Government Outlaw Off-Roading?

Recreational wheelers are difficult to stereotype. They come from all crawls of life, with independent-mindedness a common denominator. Organizing people who like to think for themselves can be challenging. This makes the opposition's agenda easier to achieve. The so-called environmental groups are better organized and funded than the various, sometimes factionalized, 4x4 organizations. At the government level, the loudest group often appears to be the majority. Our silent majority is running out of time to ensure four-wheeling's future.

The Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) has lobbied for automotive rights for decades. Founded in 1997, the SEMA Action Network (SAN) actively recruits automotive enthusiasts to help raise the motorized majority's profile and voting power. Here's an overview of SAN's top issues that affect 4x4 enthusiasts.

Specialty Equipment Legislation
"Street" compliance affects everyone who wants to run plates on their 4x4s. Safety is generally the bottom line, but legislation is often biased toward original equipment. (Coincidentally or not, the government was still General Motors' majority owner at press time.)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) maintains the right to set, enforce, and investigate safety performance standards for vehicles and required safety equipment. NHTSA regulations-such as the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS)-affect how aftermarket products that replace required equipment are produced, sold, and used. NHTSA is supposed to base its regulations solely on a product's performance, not its design. However, NHTSA regulations and state vehicle codes aren't always based on physics and real-world data. When proposed laws seem arbitrary and unreasonably restrictive, SEMA lobbies to defeat them. The most-scrutinized 4x4-relevant components are currently lighting, tires and wheels, suspension, and bumper/frame height.

Lift Laws
We're in the middle of an east-to-west, state-by-state series on lift laws. (We'll resume next month with the Midwest.) In the meantime, "monster trucks" on the road incite negative publicity from legislators and the voting population at large. Knee-jerk lift or bumper/frame-height legislation is the unfortunate result. As our lift-law series shows, some states have highly restrictive vehicles codes, ones that often defer to the automakers. (Maine requires the overall diameter of the properly mounted and inflated tire to be "within 2 inches of the range of sizes recommended by the manufacturer for the model vehicle," among other criteria.) Suspension lift and height regulations are often so convoluted that aftermarket manufacturers, 4x4 enthusiasts, and state inspectors are confused about what's permissible.

SEMA lobbies legislators to base proposed laws on applicable engineering data and analysis. The underlying goal is allowing height modifications that are useful for on- and off-road applications. SEMA considers a study done in 1988 to be the most scientific yet because it included GM engineering analysis in addition to data from aftermarket manufacturers. The following guidelines were established as a result of the study.

Frame Heights (measured from the ground to the frame's lowest point between the axles):
4,500 lb & under 24 in
4,501-7,500 lb 26 in
7,501-10,000 lb 28 in

Bumper Heights (measured from the ground to the highest point on the bumper's bottom edge)

GVWR Front Rear
4,500 lb & under 24 in 26 in
4,501-7,500 lb 27 in 29 in
7,501-10,000 lb 28 in 30 in
4WD, dual-wheel trucks 28 in 31 in

Caveat language likely disqualifies "drop" bumpers (extension tubes or plates attached below the main bumper): "For any vehicle with bumpers or attaching components which have been modified or altered from the original manufacturer's design in order to conform with the maximum bumper requirements of this section, the bumper height shall be measured from a level surface to the bottom of the vehicle frame rail at the most forward and rearward points of the frame rail." So, lowering brackets like the ones sometimes included with body-lift kits likely wouldn't legally alter bumper height.

Our cursory check of vehicles with 35- to 37-inch tires showed that all easily complied with the frame standards, but some slightly exceeded the bumper limits. The underlying goal here should be to limit the disparity among light-duty trucks'/SUVs' bumper heights and those of cars. (SEMA stresses that bumper heights vary widely among vehicles on automakers' assembly lines.)

We foresee some enthusiasts bending their frame horns to comply. Structurally sound aftermarket bumper-lowering methods would likely be far safer than DIY torch, welder, or Porta Power frame modifications. SEMA might want to revisit this paragraph in the proposed legislation.

Tennessee offers this possible clarification: "In the case of a four-wheel-drive vehicle where the 31-inch [bumper] limitation is exceeded, the vehicle will comply with this section if the vehicle is equipped with a drop bumper. The drop bumper must be bolted and welded to the frame of the vehicle and be made of a strength equal to a stock bumper."

Also, SEMA opposes mandatory tire-height regulations. Instead, bumper and frame heights functionally determine tire height. This supports the current trail trend of the largest possible tires with the least amount of lift to keep a vehicle's center of gravity as low as possible. Enlarged wheelwells are the key.

SEMA also has a Suspension Task Force comprised of key employees from its member manufacturers. This group worked with the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) to develop "Considerations for Suspension Modification." The results help educate aftermarket manufacturers and tire companies on how various modifications mesh with modern on-board systems such as electronic stability control (ESC).

"Since its introduction, SEMA has regularly recommended and supported the [1988] model to states promulgating raised vehicle standards," said Steve McDonald, SEMA's vice president of government affairs, who is based in Washington, D.C. "We support the model because it was founded on comprehensive OEM engineering analysis and data and because it allows a reasonable opportunity for utility and performance enhancing modifications. When adopted and enforced, the model prohibits unreasonable height modifications. This would include the type of 'monster truck' modifications which have been identified as a leading bane of state regulators."


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SEMA Action Network
Washington, DC 20004
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