Courtesy of Off-Highway Vehicle Association.

Courtesy of Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association.

Manufacturers of off-road vehicles have enlisted the help of a dozen U.S. senators to try to block regulations intended to prevent rollover crashes that have killed hundreds of riders.

In a letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the senators urged delaying a pending vote on safety standards for the popular trail machines known as recreational off-highway vehicles, or ROVs. Instead, the lawmakers called for the commission to continue long-running discussions with the industry.

‘’We recommend that the CPSC staff and the industry reach an agreement on voluntary standards that adequately address the risk of injury concerning ROVs,’’ the Oct. 17 letter said.

Eight of the 12 senators have received campaign donations from ROV manufacturers, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. Several represent states where ROV makers have corporate headquarters or plants. Some who signed are regarded as strong consumer advocates, including Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). Another is Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who chairs the Senate consumer protection subcommittee, and has grilled General Motors officials over deaths linked to faulty ignition switches in GM cars.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) spearheaded the letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) spearheaded the letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

According to industry and Senate spokesmen, the letter was spearheaded by Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota–where ROV makers Polaris Industries and Arctic Cat Inc are based—and by Dean Heller (R-Nev.). The other signers were Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Debra Fischer (R-Neb.), Joe Manchin III (D-W Va.),Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.),

Robert Weissman, president of the consumer group Public Citizen, described the lawmakers’ support for the industry as the ‘’normal course of business in Washington, D.C., where members of Congress … wrongfully, but reflexively, think they should defend the interests of the hometown manufacturer against the broader public interest.’’

Noting the CPSC’s track record of enormous caution in adopting safety standards, Weissman said that “when the agency decides to proceed, there is an extremely heavy presumption that the evidence overwhelmingly favors regulation.’’

Costing an average of about $13,000 apiece, ROVs have soared in popularity since they rumbled into the market about a dozen years ago. According to the agency, about 234,000 of the vehicles were sold in 2013, and about 1.2 million are in use.

The agency says it is aware of 335 deaths involving ROVs from 2003 until April 2013, and estimates 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.

iStock photo.

iStock photo.

The commission staff has spent five years developing the agency’s proposal, an effort that has included extensive testing of current ROV models. The rule would include minimum standards for vehicle handling and rollover resistance. To encourage seat belt use, it would require that ROVs be limited to speeds of 15 miles per hour when the belts aren’t fastened. To enable consumers to compare the rollover risk of different models, manufacturers would have to display a stability rating on the hangtag for each ROV.

The agency’s calculation of the costs and benefits is lopsided. Manufacturers would spend $61 to $94 per vehicle to meet the requirements, the agency says, while societal benefits would amount to $2,199 per vehicle—due mainly to fewer deaths and reduced medical bills and lost work time.

Officials say the effort was spurred by a successful repair program for the first popular ROV– the Yamaha Rhino. As reported by FairWarning, its launch in 2003 was soon followed by dozens of reports of gruesome accidents. Under pressure from the CPSC, Yamaha agreed in 2009 to recall Rhinos for a series of fixes, including putting spacers on the rear wheels to widen their stance. The rear anti-sway bar was also removed to reverse a dangerous condition called oversteer, in which a vehicle turns more sharply than the driver intends, sometimes causing a loss of control and a rollover. According to the commission staff, severe accidents with Rhinos dropped off sharply after the repairs.

The Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Assn., or ROHVA, the trade group for seven leading manufacturers, has adopted a voluntary standard, which it updated just last month. CPSC officials say the guidelines still fail to adequately address key safety issues, including vehicle handling and rollover.

But industry officials assert that ROVs are well-designed and safe, and that injuries result from drivers trying risky stunts or failing to heed warnings to wear helmets, use seat belts, and avoid alcohol.

The industry “believes that the voluntary standard is appropriate, and we have concerns over the direction of the proposed [CPSC] rule,” said Paul Vitrano, vice president of global government relations for Polaris, the top seller of ROVs.

For one thing, Vitrano said, the companies disagree with the agency over the best way to measure stability. And while acknowledging that some ROVs already feature understeer, or less sensitive steering, “being forced to build a vehicle to understeer is a mistake,’’ Vitrano said. “In some cases, an understeer vehicle would have more problems following a path, and that’s an important characteristic of off-road vehicles.”

The commission is scheduled to vote Wednesday on whether to issue its proposal for public comment. Even then, it would be at least several months before it could be adopted as a final rule, and it could be amended or shelved in the meantime.

The Senate letter was highlighted at an Oct. 22 commission briefing on the proposed rule. Commissioner Ann Marie Buerkle urged her colleagues to heed the senators’ advice and delay action. “Do not rush the mandatory standard, but let the voluntary standard play out.” Buerkle said. “I think it’s very important that we don’t stifle the industry’s R&D.”

“Do not rush the mandatory standard ... I think it's important that we don't stifle the industry's R&D." Commissioner Ann Marie Buerkle, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

“Do not rush the mandatory standard … I think it’s important that we don’t stifle the industry’s R&D.”
— Commissioner Ann Marie Buerkle, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

But Commissioner Marietta S. Robinson said the industry’s failure over the years to heed the agency’s concerns left it little choice. The updated standard “does nothing to address” key safety issues, Robinson said. If the industry came up with an effective standard, “we would be delighted,’’ she said. “However, if they do not, we must do our jobs.”

If the industry came up with an effective standard, "we would be delighted ... However, if they do not, we must do our jobs.'' --Commissioner Marietta S. Robinson, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

If the industry came up with an effective standard, “we would be delighted … However, if they do not, we must do our jobs.”— Commissioner Marietta S. Robinson, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

Since 2009, eight of the senators who signed the letter have received campaign donations from three ROV makers — Polaris, Deere & Co. and Arctic Cat. According to the Center for Responsive Politics. the top recipients were Heller ($19,000); Blunt ($18,500); Klobuchar ($13,000); Johnson ($12,000); and Manchin ($10,000). McCaskill and Fischer got $5,000 each, and Pryor received $2,500.

Despite emails and calls seeking comment from the 12 Senate offices, only Pryor and Blunt responded.

“Senator Pryor has long been an advocate and leader for consumer protection,” an email from a spokeswoman said. “He believes one of the most effective ways to implement practical solutions is to bring all the stakeholders together.’’

A Blunt spokeswoman noted that the commission, by law, can regulate only when voluntary standards aren’t working. Before issuing regulations, “Senator Blunt believes the CPSC should evaluate’’ the recently updated industry standard—something the agency staff said it had already done.

In a press release announcing the letter, Ayotte said she had joined ‘’a group of bipartisan Senators in fighting regulations … that would force recreational vehicle users in New Hampshire to comply with unreasonable mandatory design standards.’’

Stuart Silverstein contributed to this article.