July 2, 2007 – Are the industry’s ATV safety efforts enough?

Despite the big, bold word atop this page, this space isn’t necessarily just a place to preach perceived rights and wrongs to the masses.
It’s more than that.
It’s a venue that, at its best, creates discussion and thought and in turn generates more in kind from you. That’s why it’s particularly heartening to see interaction from different members of the industry on the accompanying “Letters to the editor” page.
As evidenced in those letters, we’ve struck a nerve on issues that are bubbling on showroom floors and in other industry venues. One such issue that deserves equal attention as the ones discussed by our letter writers is the challenge of ensuring safety for youth ATV riders.
There are so many complicating factors with this issue that it’s hard to point to just one: Should we delve into the federal government’s decision to step into this topic and question whether such a move will generate more than just negative press for the industry? Should we examine what financial commitments the federal government should bring with its list of new regulation proposals, which are expected to come to a vote this year? Or should we delve into why society deems parental responsibility so far down the totem pole in an era when it has never been easier — and probably cheaper — to become educated on consumer topics like ATV safety?
All those questions are relevant to the issue, but none of them are controllable by the industry. One element that is within our grasp is how we and our major players respond in the face of mounting public concern over ATV safety.
To be sure, this is a difficult and trying situation. When a child is injured or even killed on an ATV, it is easy to point the finger at a manufacturer, regardless of the reason for the incident. It is equally easy for the media to connect a local incident to a broader injury statistic with the federal government’s involvement and suddenly this is more than an unfortunate accident but part of a national epidemic — again, regardless of the underlying cause of the incident.
To address this, major manufacturers have for years worked under voluntary safety standard guidelines and spent thousands upon thousands on safety training, not to mention funding the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America’s efforts at educating quad riders on appropriate safety equipment.
But is it all enough?
With what is happening on a national level in regards to ATV youth safety and the media’s attention on it, are those commendable efforts, not to mention financial commitments, enough? Or should the industry do more to promote its past and continuing efforts so they’re more well known by the public?
I put that question to three experts in the public relations field. These individuals are not by any means experts on ATVs or the industry, and if they were given more time and in-depth information, their answers assuredly would change. But that said, all three possess a multitude of experience, and their responses to the question of “What would you do?” produced some insightful answers. Here are those answers, edited for clarity and brevity, along with a brief bio of the speakers:
Tim O’Brien is operator of O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications company based in Pittsburgh. O’Brien has served clients in several industries, providing corporate and crisis communications counsel: “I would consider safety courses and public education programs on safety to be soft or token measures that are often raised by manufacturers when put in a defensive position. In other words, a manufacturer can bring this up in defense of itself in a media interview, but nobody will really believe that they really care about safety if the industry is against other more serious safety measures.
“If the industry wants to demonstrate a commitment to safety, it would need to push for a licensing program, not unlike what it takes to drive a car. There should be a training period, a test and then a license. And while it might be controversial, the industry should push to make helmets a requirement.
“By following this strategy, it will address the issue of allowing adults to make their own decisions about their own safety, which they are entitled to do, and having safeguards in place to prevent young, untrained or unsupervised operators on these vehicles.”
Rhoda Weiss is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, an organization of public relations specialists. She also is president of Rhoda Weiss & Associates of Santa Monica, Calif., and an instructor at UCLA. “If the industry does care about safety, particularly child safety, they must be aggressive about delivering that message, and they must deliver facts to support their point of view.
“If they don’t join in the public dialogue, then people will hear only one point of view, and the ATV manufacturers will have to live with the results, whatever they might be. Those with other points of view will be very aggressive, and they certainly know how to build grassroots campaigns.
“ATV corporations have to demonstrate what they’re doing even more than might be generally expected to make this a safe sport. Their points cannot be fuzzy. They can’t skate around the issues, and they can’t be looking like political spinsters.
“There’s also a need for industrywide research to measure consumer sentiment, attitudes, etc.”
Jeff Julin is president of Denver-based MGA Communications, which has worked with a number of different companies, including Shell Oil Co. and Chase Bank Credit Cards.
“Though they can’t force anybody to do it (ride) the right way, they can encourage it through (vehicle) design, through their safety programs and through their advertising. I would look at how we are communicating the use of these vehicles either directly or indirectly by photographs, by who is using it, what are the circumstances around which they are using. Are we conveying at every turn, both in our words and in our actions, visually, the proper way to use these vehicles in order to have fun but also be safe for yourself and everybody else around you?”
It’s easy to view these ideas from the public relations experts, not to mention this entire column, as an underhanded way to say the industry has been lax about addressing its youth safety efforts to the public. In fact, that’s neither my intent nor my opinion. Instead, this column aims to accomplish more than merely voicing an opinion but to further the discussions that have already been taking place in small pockets around the industry. psb
Neil Pascale is editor-in-chief of Powersports Business. He can be reached at npascale@ehlertpublishing.com.

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