Politics & Government

Senators advocate on behalf of off-highway vehicle industry

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, which have killed hundreds of riders.

In a letter earlier this month to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the senators urged delaying a pending vote by the commission on safety standards for the popular trail machines known as recreational off-highway vehicles. 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., the chairwoman of the Senate consumer protection subcommittee, who’s grilled General Motors officials over deaths linked to faulty ignition switches in GM cars.

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

Robert Weissman, the 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 Consumer Product Safety Commission’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 last year, and about 1.2 million are in use.

Unlike all-terrain vehicles, which the rider straddles like a motorcycle and steers with handlebars, ROVs have bench or bucket seats for the driver and a passenger, steering wheels and foot controls for acceleration and braking. The commission is also considering safety regulations for ATVs, but it isn’t as far along in the process.

The commission says it’s aware of 335 deaths involving ROVs from 2003 until April 2013, and it 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.

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

The agency’s calculation of the costs and benefits shows that manufacturers would spend $61 to $94 per vehicle to meet the requirements, while societal benefits would amount to $2,199 per vehicle – mainly in 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. Dozens of reports of gruesome accidents soon followed its launch in 2003. Under pressure from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 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 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 Association, which represents seven leading manufacturers, has adopted a voluntary standard that was updated just last month. But commission officials say it fails to adequately address key safety issues, including vehicle handling and rollover. 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 rule,” said Paul Vitrano, the 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.

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 the proposal could be adopted as a final rule, and it might be amended or shelved in the meantime.

The Senate letter was highlighted last week at a 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.”

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

Eight of the senators who signed the letter to the agency have received campaign donations since 2009 from three ROV makers: Polaris, Arctic Cat and Deere & Co.

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.

Only Pryor and Blunt responded to emails and calls seeking comment from the 12 Senate offices.

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

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

In a news release announcing the letter, Ayotte said she’d 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 of Fair Warning contributed to this article.