U.S. Probes Off-Road Vehicles After a String of Accidents
NOVEMBER 4, 2008 By MELANIE TROTTMAN and CHRISTOPHER
The Yamaha Rhino, a hit in the off-road-vehicle market, promises to go "almost anywhere" with an "amazingly high level of comfort and ease." Now, federal safety regulators are investigating the vehicle following reports of some 30 deaths involving it, including those of two young girls last month.
The Rhino also has drawn keen interest from the plaintiffs' bar: Yamaha faces more than 200 lawsuits in state and federal courts, many alleging the Rhino's design is unsafe. Yamaha has settled some but recently beefed up its defense and says it may start to fight rather than settle.
Yamaha stands behind the design of the Rhino, a two-seat vehicle that looks a little like a cross between a golf cart and all-terrain vehicle. The Consumer Product Safety Commission said its investigation of this type of vehicle, which it calls a utility terrain vehicle, or UTV, was prompted by various factors, including the number of accident reports and the lawsuits. The Rhino is at the center of its investigation, people familiar with it said.
Yamaha said plaintiffs' lawyers "have seized on safety and product enhancements that Yamaha has made to the Rhino to allege baseless claims about the stability of the vehicles."
Many injury claims, the company said, stem from improper operation, modifications such as removing the protective "roll cage," or failure to use a helmet and seat belt. "If you operate it carefully and use some common sense and good judgment, it's a really great product," said Roy Watson, general manager of legal for Yamaha Motor Corp. USA, a unit of Japan's Yamaha Motor Co. Ltd.
The Rhino matter shows how federal safety regulators sometimes struggle to respond to what they call "emerging hazard" areas. There are no regulatory standards for the new breed of off-road vehicles, the CPSC said.
They aren't subject to ATV safety standards because of design differences such as having a steering wheel, in contrast to the ATVs' handlebars. But the novel off-road vehicles also aren't subject to the much-tougher standards for cars. Owners of UTVs don't have to register them.
"When there is no standard in place, we have to basically determine if there's a substantial risk of injury and death, and there's a hurdle there that has to be met," says Jay Howell, acting assistant executive director of the CPSC's office of hazard identification and reduction.
This is how consumer regulation often works: Products hit the market governed by no particular safety standards. If injury reports later arise concerning a product, these gradually get the attention of both manufacturers and regulators -- often with a spur from lawyers for those injured.
Yamaha, which has made safety modifications and stepped up warnings to consumers in recent years, said it looks forward to working with the CPSC and consumer groups to develop safety standards for this type of vehicle.
There's no way to know what action, if any, will result from the CPSC inquiry. But it's illustrative to look at the years-long course of the agency's handling of an earlier emerging hazard -- one concerning ATVs.
The agency looked into those off-road vehicles in 1985 after over 100 deaths and 100,000 injuries were linked to them. The CPSC prepared a lawsuit against five distributors, seeking a judicial determination that the vehicles met its threshold for an "imminently hazardous" consumer product. But on the day in 1987 the suit was filed, the agency reached a preliminary settlement with distributors that ultimately banned future production and sale of three-wheel ATV models in the U.S. and called for distributors of four-wheel models to offer safety training, more-explicit warning labels, and warnings that children not drive vehicles of inappropriate size.
In 1990, a trade group published a voluntary safety standard for four-wheel ATVs, for things such as "pitch stability," or resistance to rolling over. But cheaper ATVs came in from China, some lacking certain safety features, and last year, the CPSC issued a warning about some of them.
Then this August, federal legislation toughening regulation of various products made it possible, for the first time, for voluntary ATV safety standards to become mandatory. They will next April. Once there are mandatory standards for a product, the CPSC can act quickly if it spots an apparent safety problem, because a failure to meet the standard can lead to a recall or civil penalty.
Though the Rhino isn't subject to any regulatory standards, Yamaha says it voluntarily complies with some federal standards for vehicle parts, such as seat belts.
The Rhino, made in Newnan, Ga., went through thousands of hours of premarket testing that included stability tests, says Yamaha's Mr. Watson. The first Rhino came out in 2003. Yamaha designed the vehicles, now costing about $11,000, to offer aging ATV owners something with the comfort of a golf cart or minicar but the excitement of an ATV. The vehicles have bucket seats. Until this year, doors weren't standard equipment on them.
Owners use Rhinos in various ways: trail riding, farm chores and hunting. They can hold 400 pounds of cargo, enough for a hunter to haul back a deer.
At 54.4 inches wide, the Rhino is narrower than all but one major competitor, able to fit on many trails and in a large pickup. In interviews, plaintiffs' lawyers claim the Rhino's combination of design factors, including its narrowness and height, raises its risk of tipping over. One competitor markets a model by saying it has a lower center of gravity than the Rhino.
Yamaha says the Rhino was designed to go many places an ATV can go and had to have certain dimensions to handle obstacles such as rocks, ravines and hanging tree limbs. Mr. Watson says a strong roll cage adds protection that ATVs lack.
Chris Hewett, a 44-year-old mechanic in Tyler, Texas, took a 2007 Rhino 660 for a test spin in July after doing some repair work on it. He says he lost control during a "fairly sharp" right-hand turn and the Rhino began to topple to its left. He says he stuck his leg out of the vehicle, which was doorless, to keep the Rhino from tipping over, but it did go over, pinning his leg.
Rhinos weigh about 1,100 pounds. "It just snapped my leg," says Mr. Hewett, who now has a metal device in the leg.
Brad Watson, owner of the UTV dealer where Mr. Hewett works, says the Rhino doesn't pose any unique risk: "It's no different than any ATV or motorcycle -- they're all dangerous if driven recklessly."
Mr. Hewett says he was on a "very flat, level" area and not driving aggressively but only about 10 miles an hour. He was wearing a seat belt, adds his lawyer, Tim McCloskey.
Yamaha said it can't respond to "unsubstantiated allegations...where no claim has been filed." It said that "Yamaha cares about every customer and we are deeply saddened whenever anyone is injured in a Yamaha product-related accident."
In interviews, some plaintiffs' lawyers allege that Yamaha failed to report Rhino problems to the CPSC as early as it should have. Yamaha says it's been actively engaged with the agency since at least August 2006, when it informed the regulators of lawsuits and explained that some riders, against advice, were sticking out their arms or legs. It says it has conducted two demonstrations for the CPSC, which the agency confirms.
"We've kept the commission informed. We've kept our customers informed. There's nothing hidden under a bush here," said David Murray, Yamaha's outside counsel.
From the start, Yamaha cautioned people to wear seat belts and helmets and to drive straight up and down hills to minimize rollover risk. In 2006 and 2007, as injuries and lawsuits started to mount, Yamaha twice sent out safety stickers that were more strongly worded. "Abrupt maneuvers or aggressive driving have caused rollovers -- even on flat, open areas," the 2007 sticker warned.
That one came with a letter offering free installation of short, windowless doors and an extra handhold, features that became standard in 2008. Yamaha has always recommended that operators be at least 16 years old and have a driver's license.
Justin Miller of Los Angeles tried a Rhino this past Memorial Day weekend. Coming down a slope onto flat, rocky terrain, Mr. Miller, then 16, lost control while turning. He says the Rhino rocked back and forth and then turned over on its left side. His lawyer says Mr. Miller was wearing a seat belt but was partially ejected.
His mother, Edna, watching from their camp, ran toward the scene. "He said, 'Mom, my hand,'" she says. It was almost completely severed. Doctors tried to reattach it but ultimately had to amputate. Today, his school notebook bears a sticker of a rhinoceros with a line crossing it out. Yamaha said it couldn't comment on the incident because it had no information about it.
Injury data for utility terrain vehicles are skimpier than for ATVs. In 2006, the CPSC says, U.S. deaths related to four-wheel ATVs numbered one per 10,000 vehicles. Following the CPSC's approach, The Wall Street Journal estimated the number of deaths involving Rhinos per 10,000 vehicles in the same year, and came up with the same number: one. The Journal divided the number of Rhinos sold in the U.S. through 2006 by the number of 2006 deaths. Yamaha supplied the number of 2006 deaths, eight. The sales figures came from a research firm, Power Products Marketing.
Yamaha called this calculation "the most basic, simple approach to getting a number," but one that "is skewed because of the small number of products on the market." Yamaha said that a better analysis would include the number of hours the product was used but that no such research exists.
Yamaha declined to comment on the sales figures provided by Power Products Marketing. That firm says that U.S. Rhino sales reached 42,000 in 2007. It also said that they're down this year, which Yamaha confirms. In 2007 Yamaha Motor Co. Ltd. took a $136 million charge for an increase in its accrual for product liabilities. Net income was $624 million last year at the company, which is a unit of Yamaha Corp.
Last December, Yamaha led its competitors in forming a new trade association that will set voluntary safety standards for vehicles such as the Rhino. The group is called the Recreational Off Highway Vehicle Association, and is pushing ROV as a new name for them, in place of utility terrain vehicle.
The shifting terms cause confusion for CPSC staff members, who rely on an electronic injury-surveillance system for data and scour newspaper reports of accidents involving off-road vehicles. "We're always running behind trying to figure out what's the word to search for," says Mr. Howell. _________________ www.UTVGuide.net www.DuneGuide.com
Yamaha Rhino Accidents Prompt CPSC Investigation
Tuesday, November 4th, 2008
Federal safety officials are investigating the Yamaha Rhino, a popular off-road-vehicle that has been linked to 30 deaths. Unfortunately, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has not set safety standards for vehicles like the Rhino, which it classifies as a utility terrain vehicle, or UTV. Another class of off-roaders, all terrain vehicles (ATVs), are subject to safety standards.
While off-road vehicles are involved in hundreds of accidents every year, critics say the Yamaha Rhino ATV is even more likely to be involved in one particular type of mishap - rollover accidents. They charge that the Yamaha Rhino is top heavy, and it has tires that are extremely narrow. These design defects make it far more likely that the Yamaha Rhino will tip and rollover while going through a turn, even when the vehicle is traveling at a slow speed and is on a flat surface. Furthermore, the Yamaha Rhino is designed in such a way that passengers’ legs are unprotected in the event of a rollover accident.
Victims of Yamaha Rhino rollover accidents usually experience broken or crushed legs, ankles or feet. In some cases, victims have been permanently disabled, and have had limbs amputated following a Yamaha Rhino rollover accident. When Yamaha Rhino rollover accidents involve children, the results are often fatal. Just last month, two little girls were killed in such a Yamaha Rhino accident.
Critics of Yamaha has say the company has been slow to acknowledge the Rhino ATVs rollover problems since the vehicles were first introduced in 2003. In September 2006, Yamaha Motor Corp. sent a letter to the owners of Rhino ATVs warning that the Rhino was prone to tip while going through sharp turns. However, the wording of the Yamaha letter seemed to place much of the blame for Rhino rollover accident injuries on the victims themselves. Yamaha warned passengers of the Rhino ATVs to use seatbelts, and to keep their hands, arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. The letter also included information on handling the Rhino if it should start to tip over. But since Yamaha sent the 2006 letter, it has become increasingly apparent that the actions recommended by Yamaha do little to protect passengers involved in Rhino rollover accidents.
It wasn’t until 2007 that Yamaha appeared to finally take the Rhino’s safety issues seriously. At that time, the company offered free modifications to the owners of new and used Rhinos. These modifications included the addition of doors to the ATV, as well as additional handholds.
The CPSC decision to investigate the Yamaha Rhino was based on reports of accidents and deaths involving the vehicle, as wells as the high number of product liability suits - 200 - filed by people who claim they were injured by the Rhino. Vehicles like the Rhino aren’t classified as ATV because of design differences such as having a steering wheel, in contrast to the ATVs’ handlebars. But neither are off-road vehicles subject to the much-tougher standards for cars.
Yamaha continues to stand-by the Rhino, and says it voluntarily complies with some federal standards for vehicle parts, such as seat belts. It also appears that Yamaha and other makers of UTVs are trying to head-off mandatory safety standards by proposing their own voluntary rules. Last year, Yamaha and other makers of the vehicles formed the Recreational Off Highway Vehicle Association, which will set those standards.
But critics of the Yamaha Rhino are still pushing for mandatory standards. Earlier this year, Congress passed such safety rules for ATVs, and they go into effect in April. Proponents of mandatory standards for UTVs say such similar rules would allow the CPSC to act quickly if it spots an apparent safety problem, because a failure to meet the standard can lead to a recall or civil penalty. _________________ www.UTVGuide.net www.DuneGuide.com
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