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.