Yamaha Rhino Accidents Prompt CPSC InvestigationNov 4, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
Federal safety officials are investigating the Yamaha Rhino, a popular off-road-vehicle that has been linked to 30 deaths. Unfortunately, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has not set safety standards for vehicles like the Rhino, which it classifies as a utility terrain vehicle, or UTV. Another class of off-roaders, all terrain vehicles (ATVs), are subject to safety standards.
While off-road vehicles are involved in hundreds of accidents every year, critics say the Yamaha Rhino is even more likely to be involved in one particular type of mishap - rollover accidents. They charge that the Yamaha Rhino is top heavy, and it has tires that are extremely narrow. These design defects make it far more likely that the Yamaha Rhino will tip and rollover while going through a turn, even when the vehicle is traveling at a slow speed and is on a flat surface. Furthermore, the Yamaha Rhino is designed in such a way that passengers’ legs are unprotected in the event of a rollover accident.
Victims of Yamaha Rhino rollover accidents have reported broken or crushed legs, ankles or feet. In some cases, victims have been permanently disabled, and have had limbs amputated following a Yamaha Rhino rollover accident. When Yamaha Rhino rollover accidents involve children, the results are often fatal. Just last month, two little girls were killed in such a Yamaha Rhino accident.
Critics of Yamaha charge the company has been slow to acknowledge the Rhino's rollover problems since the vehicles were first introduced in 2003. In September 2006, Yamaha Motor Corp. sent a letter to the owners of the Rhino warning that the Rhino was prone to tip while going through sharp turns. However, the wording of the Yamaha letter seemed to place much of the blame for Rhino rollover accident injuries on the victims themselves. Yamaha warned passengers of the Rhino to use seatbelts, and to keep their hands, arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. The letter also included information on handling the Rhino if it should start to tip over. But since Yamaha sent the 2006 letter, it has become increasingly apparent that the actions recommended by Yamaha do little to protect passengers involved in Rhino rollover accidents.
It wasn’t until 2007 that Yamaha appeared to finally take the Rhino’s safety issues seriously. At that time, the company offered free modifications to the owners of new and used Rhinos. These modifications included the addition of doors, as well as additional handholds.
The CPSC decision to investigate the Yamaha Rhino was based on reports of accidents and deaths involving the vehicle, as wells as the high number of product liability suits - 200 - filed by people who claim they were injured by the Rhino. Vehicles like the Rhino aren't classified as ATV because of design differences such as having a steering wheel, in contrast to the ATVs' handlebars. But neither are off-road vehicles subject to the much-tougher standards for cars.
Yamaha continues to stand-by the Rhino, and says it voluntarily complies with some federal standards for vehicle parts, such as seat belts. It also appears that Yamaha and other makers of UTVs are trying to head-off mandatory safety standards by proposing their own voluntary rules. Last year, Yamaha and other makers of the vehicles formed the Recreational Off Highway Vehicle Association, which will set those standards.
But critics of the Yamaha Rhino are still pushing for mandatory standards. Earlier this year, Congress passed such safety rules for ATVs, and they go into effect in April. Proponents of mandatory standards for UTVs say such similar rules would allow the CPSC to act quickly if it spots an apparent safety problem, because a failure to meet the standard can lead to a recall or civil penalty.