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Showdown With Industry Looms as Safety Rules for Off-Road Vehicles Advance

Courtesy of Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association.

Courtesy of Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association.

Rebuffing off-road vehicle manufacturers, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission voted today to move forward with rules aimed at preventing rollover crashes that have killed hundreds of riders.

The rules would include minimum handling and stability standards for the popular trail machines known as recreational off-highway vehicles, or ROVs. The vehicles also would be engineered to limit their speed to 15 miles an hour when seat belts aren’t fastened. Currently, an estimated 1.2 million ROVs are in use in the U.S.

A dozen U.S. Senators had joined a trade group, the Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association, in urging the commission to delay a vote and continue long-running talks with the industry on upgrading its voluntary standard. As reported by FairWarning, eight of the 12 senators received campaign contributions from ROV manufacturers, and several are from states that are home to manufacturers’ corporate headquarters or factories.

But in a 3-2 vote, commissioners rejected the call to stall a rulemaking process that has already taken five years. The majority argued that the prospect of a federal mandate would motivate the industry to strengthen its voluntary standard.

The off-highway vehicle association said in a statement that it was ”extremely disappointed” by the vote, adding that the rules could limit manufacturers’ ability ”to design vehicles to safely provide the level of performance that is expected by OHV [off-highway vehicle] enthusiasts.”

 John and Tammie Sand, whose daughter Ellen died of head injuries at age 10 after the ROV in which she was a passenger rolled over and struck her.


John and Tammie Sand, whose daughter Ellen died of head injuries at age 10 after the ROV in which she was a passenger rolled over and struck her.

Paul Vitrano, a vice president of Polaris Industries, the top ROV manufacturer, said the company was “assessing all of our options for next steps. We also expect that thousands of our dealers and hundreds of thousands of our customers will be expressing their concerns.”

Rachel Weintraub, senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America, called the vote a ‘’very good decision for consumers,” following years of what she said was the industry’s refusal to address key safety issues.

The vote reflected party affiliations. The commission’s three Democrats—Robert S. Adler, Marietta S. Robinson, and Chairman Elliot F. Kaye—voted to issue the proposal, and the two Republicans, Ann Marie Buerkle and Joseph Mohorovic, voted against.

Before the vote, Buerkle argued for continuing on the path of voluntary standards, saying it was “incumbent on us to give them [the manufacturers] the time they need.’’

But Robinson said “’the only game plan of industry is to delay, delay, delay as long as possible.” Meanwhile, she said, ‘’people continue to die in rollovers.”

The agency says it is aware of 335 ROV-related deaths through April 2013, and has estimated that ROV accidents result in 11,100 medically treated injuries per year. In a typical severe accident scenario, the ROV flips while in a turn, the occupants are fully or partly ejected, and then suffer crushing or paralyzing injuries when the vehicle, often weighing 1,100 pounds, lands on top of them.

The commission staff began work on the proposal in 2009, an effort that has included extensive testing of current ROV models. Besides setting minimum performance standards, the rules would enable consumers to compare rollover risks of different models through a stability rating printed on a hangtag with each vehicle.

Industry officials say the current voluntary standard is adequate, that ROVs are reasonably safe, and that injuries result from drivers doing risky stunts or failing to heed warnings to wear helmets, use seat belts, and avoid alcohol.

The proposal will now go out for public comment, and it will be at least several months before it could become a final regulation.

Among those closely tuned to the outcome were John and Tammie Sand of Lebanon, Ohio, whose 10-year- old daughter Ellen perished in the crash of an ROV seven years ago. The family was attending a party where another guest was taking people for rides on a Yamaha Rhino. When it was Ellen’s turn, the Rhino tipped over, she was thrown to the ground and the vehicle struck her. She died the following day.

The Sands sued Yamaha, claiming the Rhino was dangerously unstable, but lost their case.

On Tuesday, John Sand, 57, sent an impassioned email to commissioners. He told of arriving minutes later at the accident scene, and seeing blood bubbling from Ellen’s mouth, nose and ears.

“Please don’t break our trust,” Sand wrote.

“I’m happy with what they did,” Sand said after the vote. “Time has shown that the industry is not going to do it” on its own.