Politics & Government

Off-highway vehicle safety rules proceed despite some senators’ objections

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

The rules would include minimum standards for the handling and stability of the popular trail machines known as recreational off-highway vehicles, of which an estimated 1.2 million are in use. The vehicles also would be engineered to limit their speeds to 15 mph when seat belts aren’t fastened.

The proposed rules will now go out for public comment. It will be at least several months before they could become a final regulation.

A dozen U.S. senators had joined a trade group, the Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association, in urging the commission to delay voting on the rules and continue long-running talks with the industry on upgrading its voluntary standard. Among them were both Missouri senators, Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. McCaskill is the chairwoman of the Senate consumer protection subcommittee.

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

Paul Vitrano, a vice president at Polaris Industries, the top ROV manufacturer, said the company was “very disappointed” by the vote. “We also expect that thousands of our dealers and hundreds of thousands of our customers will be expressing their concerns,” he said.

Rachel Weintraub, senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America, called the vote a “very good decision for consumers,” after years of what she said was the industry’s refusal to act.

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 that.

The agency says it’s aware of 335 ROV-related deaths through April 2013 and it’s 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. Besides setting performance standards, the rules would allow shoppers to compare the rollover risks of competing models through stability ratings printed on hang tags 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.

Among those closely tuned to the outcome of Wednesday’s vote 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 the commissioners. He told of arriving at the accident scene and seeing blood bubbling from Ellen’s mouth, nose and ears.

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

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