Correction to This Article
The article misidentified a company that conducted a May 2007 recall. It was Stateside Powersports, not Stateside Motorsports.

The article incorrectly said that the Consumer Product Safety Commission denied a petition to ban children from riding ATVs. The petition proposed banning the sale of adult ATVs to children.

Stuck in Neutral

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007

In June, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued an unusual warning about a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle designed for children, calling it "defective and dangerous."

"Children are at risk of injury or death due to multiple safety defects with this off-road vehicle," the agency said in a news release.

That vehicle, the Kazuma Meerkat 50, was not recalled, however, which prompted consumer advocates to raise the question: If it was so dangerous, why did the CPSC allow it to remain on the market?

The reason was simple but revealing. At the time, the CPSC did not have enough commissioners to approve a lawsuit to force a recall. Consumer Reports called the warning "a non-recall" and "a dangerous precedent for a hamstrung agency."

"The problem with [a warning] is that it doesn't get that much attention," said Pamela Gilbert, former CPSC executive director. "No one is going to put you on the 'Today' show. It's a very weak remedy."

The story of what led to that warning and what has happened since illustrates how difficult it can be to get a dangerous product off the market and the constraints the CPSC faces when dealing with companies that do not cooperate.

Some of those limitations are written into law. Some are the result of the commission's reluctance to aggressively use the tools it has. ATVs in particular have proved difficult for the CPSC to regulate. About 22 million people ride ATVs in the United States. More than 700 die in ATV accidents each year, 25 percent of whom are younger than 16. Most of the ATVs involved are made domestically by companies such as Honda, Polaris and Yamaha. Consumer advocates blame the injuries and deaths on weak voluntary standards.

In the late 1990s, CPSC officials thought they could develop engineering solutions to make ATVs safer and adopt regulations to make the changes mandatory. The agency never moved forward, however, because it calculated that it did not have the money or the staff to do so and would not have been able to fight the industry in court over new standards, Gilbert said.

More recently, consumer groups sought to ban children younger than 16 from riding ATVs, a ban that the ATV industry said could not be enforced. The number of children hospitalized because of ATV accidents rose 67 percent from 2000 to 2004, said Jim Helmkamp, an injury researcher at West Virginia University. In 2006, the CPSC rejected the proposed ban, saying it could not be enforced.

Even as the ATV industry was fighting that ban, it faced a new threat: a rising tide of cheaper direct imports from China and Taiwan, which more-established ATV makers said did not meet safety standards. Fearful that the cheaper imports would undermine public perception of ATV safety, the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, the trade group for the largest ATV manufacturers, hired two former CPSC experts on ATVs to examine the Kazuma Meerkat 50 and three other imported models made for young children and teenagers. The other imported ATVs were the Long Chang 110cc, the SunL SLA 90cc and the Baja Motorsports 90cc. While the importers of the four ATVs said they had no reports of injuries on their machines, the June 2006 SVIA study found that three of the four failed to meet voluntary safety standards to such an extent the ATVs should be recalled. One, marketed at children as young as 6, had no front brakes. Another was too powerful for its intended riders, teens. And two vehicles could be started in gear.

The CPSC obtained the SVIA test results in December but struggled to follow through on the findings. The agency began contacting importers of the four ATVs soon after, the companies said. Stateside Motorsports agreed to order a recall, which took place in May. The issues related to the other three remain unresolved.

The ATV imported by Baja Motorsports of Tempe, Ariz., had less serious problems. Baja made changes to the model and is in talks with CPSC over whether a recall is necessary, said Baja spokesman Paul Gift.

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