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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Safety Being Pushed Aside Again

Lloyd Cutler and Ronald Reagan are at it again. Cutler is the Washington lawyer representing Honda’s drive to keep the danger­ously unstable all-terrain vehicle in the hands of 12-year-olds. Rea­gan is just as persisting in his re­fusal to regulate Honda and three other Japanese ATV manufactur­ers who dominate 99 percent of the market in this country.

The story of ATVs is a grisly one. Since 1982 more than 900 deaths have been attributed to these vehicles tipping over on their drivers. With a high center of gravity, these three-wheelers (and the four-wheelers are not much better) are difficult to con­trol over the rough terrain they are advertised to be suited for. Many of these victims have been youngsters who are too young to have driver’s licenses for cars.

One proud parent was videotap­ing his son driving an ATV when the vehicle went front over rear and crushed the little boy. Twenty Americans a month are dying un­der ATVs; many more are being injured. More than 2.3 million of these vehicles have been imported into this country.

Four years after conclusive ev­idence was in its hands regarding what Missouri Attorney General William Webster Jr. calls “these killer machines,” the Consumer Product Safety Commission de­layed. The commission chairman, Reagan-appointee Terrence M. Scanlon, sees his job not as en­forcing the law against companies but, instead, as encouraging them to be good boys. Another commis­sioner, Stuart Statler, repeatedly clashed with Scanlon on this mat­ter until his retirement from the commission in mid-1986. Statler wanted a ban on sales and also re­calls and refunds.

Scanlon listened to the Japanese producers who blamed driver er­ror or misuse and year after year did nothing. Then congressional committees in both the Senate and the House held hearings, conduct­ed studies, put out condemnatory recommendations against ATVs. Legislation forcing action against ATVs was imminent. Lawsuits by victims or their kin were increas­ing against Honda, Yamaha, Suzu­ki, Kawasaki and their dealers.

Then two events occurred. Lloyd Cutler went up to the Sen­ate and had a chat with an ATV critic, Sen. Albert Gore, now run­ning for president. He persuaded Gore to hold off any legislation for a few months to allow for a negotiated settlement between the safety commission and the manu­facturers. Gore agreed.

Next, the Justice Department and the safety commission con­cluded a settlement agreement with the manufacturers — just af­ter the Christmas selling season — which, if it were not tragic, would be a farce.

The agreement bans sales of three-wheeled models by mid-Feb­ruary. Of course some time ago the manufacturers decided to stop making them by 1988, preferring to push the four-wheelers from now on. Existing three-wheelers in dealer showrooms can be sold un­til mid-February and maybe be­yond that date if, after some mi­nor modifications are made, the safety commission approves. There are to be warning pos­ters, warning letters, warning la­bels and warning notices galore —this will make it more difficult for consumers to win ATV law­suits. ATVs will no longer be al­lowed to be sold to children under 12 or used by children under 12. And the Reagan government agreed not to oppose any state proposals to require licenses for ATV operators.

There you have it. There is no recall required for what the safe­ty commission, and many expert opinions agree, is a dangerous product. The commission itself had judged ATVs (both the three-wheeler and four-wheeler models) to be an “imminent hazard” under the law; but declined to use its emergency authority to stop the mayhem. And, of course, still no mandatory standards and no re­funds.

Scanlon’s excuse for not moving vigorously is his typical one — the settlement avoids a prolonged court battle. Rep. James Florio, D-N.J., retorted “This isn’t so much a settlement as a sellout.”

Once again, the Cutler-Reagan axis puts its gears against safety

–this time children’s safety especially — and drives the vehi­cle manufacturers away from sen­sible law and order. As these two men have done on many occasions

–blocking air bags and other ve­hicle safety features — the rule of mammon and ideology are what operates their minds.

For parents and their children out around the country who may be tempted, just put a mental “skull and crossbones” on both three- and four-wheeler ATVs. There are much safer ways to be amused and excited.