By Neil Pascale
The latest federal regulatory battle that is threatening to have a financial impact on the industry is falling squarely on one of its fastest-growing segments, UTVs.
In recent weeks, a set of voluntary standards for UTV manufacturers was adopted. These will be phased in over time and result in few, if any, changes that will be noticeable to the dealer or consumer, according to an industry official.
Lurking ahead, however, is the possibility of much greater changes by the federal government. These potential new rules have already created a storm of back-and-forth paperwork, with industry officials describing such possible rule changes to the design of UTVs as “unprecedented” and “unjustified.”
The government, specifically the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), has dived into a rulemaking process on UTV design to consider whether there is an “unreasonable risk” of injury and death associated with the use of the vehicles, also referred to as side-by-sides.
This rulemaking process is an ongoing one and has not been stopped or delayed because of the adoption of the voluntary UTV standards by the American National Standards Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps establish guidelines for a variety of U.S. industries. The CPSC process, however, is not expected to be swift and the regulatory process could stretch well into 2011.
The CPSC and the industry, specifically the Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association (ROHVA), are principally disagreeing over three core UTV design subjects: vehicle stability, steering and efforts at occupant retention, says Paul Vitrano, executive vice president of ROHVA, which is primarily made up of UTV manufacturers Polaris, Yamaha and Arctic Cat.
“One of our guiding principles and points of departure with the CPSC is we feel it’s important to maintain the inherent characteristics of this class because a) they can be used safely; and b) there’s a great demand for them,” Vitrano said in an interview with Powersports Business.
“So we’re generally not in favor of something that will fundamentally change the vehicle, but especially if there’s not a documented reason for it, which there isn’t a documented reason for anything the CPSC is proposing.”
The CPSC, on the other hand, has indicated a strong stance in its ongoing rulemaking efforts. In an October 2009 memo completed before the final draft of the voluntary standards, the CPSC staff stated, “the commission has preliminarily determined that the draft voluntary standard will not adequately address the deaths and injuries associated with (UTV) rollovers and collisions.” This is a view that will likely remain, even with the new voluntary standards, as Vitrano notes the federal government and the industry remain apart on the three key issues.
A popular product
Until the recession dampened consumer confidence and spending in late 2008, UTVs had been one of the industry’s leading bright spots. Industry officials had previously told Powersports Business that leading OEM retail sales of UTVs had topped 140,000 units in 2008, which made the vehicle segment in line with off-highway motorcycles as the industry’s third-largest annual retail sales category, trailing only on-road motorcycles and ATVs. A CPSC report said based on sales through 2008 and assuming an average product life of about 10 years, more than 416,000 UTV units were in use by 2009.
What’s in question about the increasingly popular vehicle segment is its rider safety. The CPSC said it received more than 180 reports of injury and fatality incidents occurring between January 2003-August 2009, according to an October 2009 CPSC document. Of those incidents, the CPSC said nearly 70 percent appeared to have involved overturning of the UTV, with no known collision preceding the overturning.
The CPSC staff also did its own UTV testing from November 2008 to January 2009 of models that were on the market. The staff’s preliminary evaluations, according to the CPSC document, indicated the UTVs “may exhibit inadequate lateral stability, undesirable steering characteristics and inadequate occupant protection during a rollover crash.”
In answer, the industry funded its own testing, including a study on the Yamaha Rhino from an independent engineering and scientific consulting firm, Exponent Inc. That February study found available data does not “suggest an elevated risk of injuries associated with UTVs, as compared with injuries associated with other on- and off-highway vehicles.” The report cited five different sources of information on the injury data. “Even if the estimated number of ER-treated injuries associated with UTVs were multiplied by 10, the injury risks associated with UTVs would not be elevated in comparison to the injury risks associated with the other categories of vehicles,” the report concluded.
In a separate report generated by members of Polaris, Yamaha and Arctic Cat and sent to the CPSC, the companies said, “on a per 10,000 vehicle basis, the (UTV) fatality rate is substantially lower than the fatality rate associated with passenger cars, SUVs and other light trucks and equivalent to the fatality rate associated with ATVs.” The report also criticized the accident data the CSPC cited in its own staff report, referring to it as a “negatively skewed portrayal” of such accidents. The report by the three OEMs says the CPSC-cited data is not “statistically relevant” because it reflects CPSC-initiated investigations, which “typically involved the most severe accidents.”
The OEM report, together with the ROHVA-funded studies, were given to the CPSC staff recently during a public comment period on what could amount to the beginning of a federal rule-making process. For the foreseeable future, the CPSC staff will review comments on its “advanced notice of proposed rule-making,” a regulatory process that could lead to any number of potential endings, including new rules that could change the design of the popular four-wheelers to an adoption of the new voluntary standards, something that happened with ATVs.
“There are a lot of different ways this could ultimately play out,” Vitrano said. “And it’s likely it’s going to take many months to see how it plays out.”
In the meantime, Vitrano said the ROHVA will continue working with the CPSC “to try to come closer together on some of these issues that remain in dispute.”
Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the CPSC, said, “It is important for (UTV)?riders and enthusiasts to provide CPSC?with their input on our proposed federal rule as staff take the comments we receive from the public seriously. Staff will review those comments, and where appropriate, will incorporate public input into our rulemaking as staff move forward with the process.”