Off-Road industry looks to Congress to put brakes on safety regulation

By Myron Levin, FairWarning 

Photo: Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association

Photo: Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association

Manufacturers of off-road vehicles have mounted fierce resistance to proposed federal rules aimed at reducing rollover crashes that have killed hundreds of riders. After failing to persuade the Consumer Product Safety Commission to shelve the rules, the companies have turned to Congress to run interference.

Powered by an aggressive social media campaign and political donations, a measure moving in the House and Senate would impose a two-year ban on regulating the popular trail machines known as recreational off-highway vehicles, or ROVs.

The legislation would direct the National Academy of Sciences to study disputed engineering issues, with the CPSC paying the estimated cost of $800,000 to $1 million.

In an interview with FairWarning, Robert S. Adler, a CPSC commissioner, called it “a terrible precedent for the future, because it says that any time you don’t like what a regulatory agency is doing, go to Congress and get them to make an agency pay to have an independent assessment done by a group like the National Academy of Sciences.”

“There are real-world consequences…for delaying, and that is severe injuries and deaths,” said Rachel Weintraub, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America. The federation is opposing the legislation along with groups ranging from the Union of Concerned Scientists and American Public Health Assciation to State Farm and Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.

But industry officials say ROVs already are well-designed, and that changes sought by the commission would degrade performance and possibly reduce safety. Industry engineers ‘’just think CPSC’s got this wrong,” said Erik Pritchard, general counsel for the Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association, which represents the manufacturers, in testimony before Congress. “If the CPSC won’t listen to industry—they won’t listen to folks who make these vehicles–maybe they’ll listen to the National Academy of Sciences.”

Yet if the measure–dubbed the ROV In-Depth Examination, or RIDE ACT —is adopted, the two-year pause would run out the clock on the Obama administration. Should Republicans win the White House, the commission would soon shift to a 3-2 majority of GOP appointees who might scuttle the rules. “That’s clearly part of the intention,” Adler said.

The CPSC says it is aware of 335 ROV deaths from 2003 through April 5, 2013. At least 126 more deaths have occurred since then, according to figures published by the Consumer Federation of America. Because the federation’s count was derived mainly from news reports–and many ROV accidents aren’t reported—the actual toll is almost certainly higher.

In a typical severe accident scenario, the ROV flips while in a turn, occupants are fully or partially ejected, and then suffer crushing or paralyzing injuries when the half-ton vehicle lands on top of them.

In Florida, the main riding areas for off-highway vehicles on public lands are located in central and north Florida, including the Ocala, Osceola and Apalachicola national forests and the Croom Motorcycle Area in the Withlacoochee State Forest in Brooksville. More information can be found at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services here.

Heidi Crow-Michael, whose son died in an ROV crash, testifying before Congress.

Heidi Crow-Michael, whose son died in an ROV crash, testifying before Congress.

As reported by FairWarning, the proposed rules were issued for public comment last fall, with the three Democratic appointees voting to move forward with the rule-making and the two Republicans voting no. Immediately after the vote, Paul Vitrano, an executive with Polaris Industries, the top ROV manufacturer, predicted an onslaught of complaints from dealers and off-road enthusiasts. Indeed, protesters exhorted by Twitter messages and websites such as flooded members of Congress with more than 100,000 emails, Vitrano said.

The RIDE Act was introduced in the House by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and in the Senate by Dean Heller, R-Nev. In the Senate, the measure has been approved by the Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation.

According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, since August, 2013 Polaris Chairman and CEO Scott W. Wine has donated $98,200 to the Republican National Committee and $5,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Officials and employees of ROV manufacturers since 2009 also have donated $19,080 to Pompeo, and contributed to 10 of the RIDE Act’s 14 original House co-sponsors–including Collin Peterson, D-Minn. ($34,000), Erik Paulsen, R-Minn. ($27,700), and Sean P. Duffy, R-Wis ($13,200).

Heller has received $19,000 in contributions from industry officials and employees, who have also donated to six of the seven Senate co-sponsors–including Cory Gardner, R-Colo. ($30,000), Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. ($11,000), and Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska ($10,000).

Nearly all of the donations came from Polaris and Deere & Co. employees. Polaris, based in Eden Prairie, Minn., reported 2014 revenue of $4.48 billion, mostly from off-road vehicle sales. Deere is a global agricultural equipment giant, with ROVs a minor part of its product line.

In an email to FairWarning, Ken Golden, a Deere spokesman, said the company “has not contacted anyone in Congress on the issue.’’ Deere supports candidates “who have pro-business positions on a wide range of issues,” Golden said, and not “based on a single issue.”

Emails and calls to Pompeo and Heller were not returned. But in remarks at a hearing last month, Pompeo said he wanted to involve the National Academy of Sciences to assure “that we get the data right– the science and the engineering and technology right.”

At a Senate hearing Heller said he feared the rules would make ROVs ‘’less safe.” He added: “For someone like myself, who lives in a rural state,…you can imagine the pushback that we’re seeing from the industry itself.”

But bill opponents say the call for more study is purely a delay tactic, pointing out that the commission staff spent more than five years developing the agency’s proposal, a process that included extensive testing of current ROV models.

The proposal includes minimum standards for vehicle handling and rollover resistance. To encourage seat belt use, ROV speeds would be limited to 15 miles per hour when seat belts aren’t fastened. To enable consumers to compare the rollover risk of different models, manufacturers would have to display a stability rating on each ROV.

More than 750,000 ROVs were sold in the U.S. from 2011-2014, according to industry estimates. Unlike ATVs, which the rider straddles like a motorcycle, ROVs have bench seats, a steering wheel and seat belts.

The industry adopted a voluntary standard in 2010, and updated it in 2011 and again last year. By law, the commission must defer to voluntary standards if they adequately address safety hazards. But agency officials say the industry standard fails to address key issues, including unsafe vehicle handling, rollover risk, and the risk of riders from being ejected when ROVs tip over.

Commissioner Robert S. Adler of the Consumer Product Safety Commission

Commissioner Robert S. Adler of the Consumer Product Safety Commission

Industry officials say the vehicles are safe, and that injuries are the result of drivers trying risky stunts or failing to heed warnings to wear helmets and avoid drinking.

“Some people drive ROVs in a very irresponsible manner,” conceded the CPSC’s Adler. “But you can actually have two factors that influence an accident: an irresponsible driver and…a poorly designed vehicle, and the one is not to the exclusion of the other.”

Despite the impasse, negotiations over design issues recently resumed between industry and agency engineers. In a June 2 letter, ROHVA said that “In light of the recent and productive meetings,” it would consider amending the voluntary standard.

In the meantime, safety activists are urging Congress not to intervene. Among them is Heidi Crow-Michael of Winnsboro, Texas, whose 9-year-old son, J.T. Crow, died in 2007 when the ROV in which he was a passenger rolled over.

When Crow-Michael testified last month before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, only four of the 20 members were present to hear her appeal.

In a voice shaking with emotion, Crow-Michael read off the names of several who perished in ROV crashes, most of them under 14.

“Our stories did not…end the day our loved ones were killed or injured,’’ Crow-Michael said. “We will live with the consequences forever.

“You have an opportunity to become a part of their story, the part that offers hope for the future, by bringing about change.” she told lawmakers. “Delay is a problem…Waiting for more data is waiting for more deaths.”

Douglas H. Weber, a senior researcher with the Center for Responsive Politics, contributed to this story.

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