By Neil Pascale
Should a four-wheel vehicle that shares a few similarities with a car be treated like one under federal law?
That is one of the key points of debate between the federal government and the industry over a current rule-making process that could change the design of UTVs. The federal government’s Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is in the midst of that process, which is in its infancy. The debate over what, if any, design changes should be made could well stretch into 2011.
The regulatory process is occurring as the CPSC determines whether UTVs, also called side-by-sides, pose an “unreasonable” risk of injury and death to the rider. The chairman of the CPSC, Inez Tenenbaum, said in an October 2009 statement, “I have reviewed numerous death and injury reports tied to ROVs (UTVs), and I believe CPSC can play a vital role in making them safer.”
Three core issues remain as stumbling blocks in fashioning federal regulations that will appease both the CPSC and the industry, including the Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association (ROHVA), which is primarily made up of UTV manufacturers Polaris Industries, Yamaha and Arctic Cat. Those three core issues: stability, steering and passenger retention.
How closely the UTV is treated like an automobile under federal regulations is at the root of some of these stumbling blocks, according to an October 2009 CPSC staff document and comments made by industry officials and groups.
Take stability for instance. The CPSC in the 2009 report suggested UTV stability should be judged by a metric found in the auto industry. The CPSC staff, in fact, used that metric on a UTV with two occupants and found side-by-sides scored far lower than automobiles on stability.
The industry, on the other hand, has supported using a different metric — one the CPSC devised to measure ATV stability, says Paul Vitrano, executive vice president of ROHVA.
“More importantly, it accounts for differences in front and rear track width and the relative location of the center of gravity of the vehicle,” Vitrano said of the ATV stability metric.
Also at issue is whether the stability metric is measured without persons onboard — as is the case with ATVs — or with two occupants on the UTV. The latter, according to an industry report issued in March, would result in “such radical design changes to the vehicles that they would become unusable in most off-highway environments.”
That report, prepared by Arctic Cat, Polaris and Yamaha for the CPSC, says the metric more associated with the auto industry is not used as a mandatory standard by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) “because of the very small expected benefits relative to the cost of elimination of vehicle categories and functionality.”
Steering — and how much it should reflect the auto industry — also is an issue.
The CPSC staff in its October 2009 report said UTVs should “exhibit understeer characteristics that are similar to automobiles because such characteristics are safer and more familiar to drivers.”
The industry report, however, called such a proposal as “unprecedented and could introduce unintended adverse risks for consumers.”
“There is no indication,” the industry report states, “that CPSC has ever attempted to determine whether any correlation can be shown between understeer/oversteer and ROV (UTV) crashes or rollovers. The companies are aware of none.”
Vitrano says part of the steering debate also reflects an interest by the CPSC to use a pass/fail test that occurs on pavement. “We say these vehicles aren’t designed to be on pavement so this is an invalid test,” he said, “and in 100 years of auto testing, there has never been a standard based on this type of test. They want to impose one for a vehicle that is not even designed for the test surface.”
Passenger retention also is an issue as the CPSC’s review of UTV-reported crashes showed almost 70 percent involved the overturning of the vehicle. Although the industry group report has criticized such findings as “not statistically representative,” the issue of passenger retention remains a key one. The CPSC staff, in fact, has suggested a number of options meant to address this, including lowering the occupant seating location and adding physical side guards, like doors and shoulder guards. Four-point seat belts and technologies for increasing seat belt use also were mentioned.
“The problem with that is almost anything you could come up with in that area would work for some vehicles and some applications and be problematic for others,” Vitrano said of possible passenger retention measures. “If you have a vehicle that is used primarily on a farm or a work application, you’re not going to want someone to have to open a door or step over a deep foot well over and over again because it’s not efficient. It could even cause a safety concern if someone is stepping over things when you’re getting in and out. It’s one thing if you’re getting in a vehicle and riding for two hours and then getting out of it, it’s another thing if you’re getting out of it every 2 minutes. They want to impose things across the board but this is a very diverse class of vehicles.”