Heidi's Blog

Tuesday, August 4, 2009, 06:12 PM ( 52 views )  - Posted by Heidi
Aug. 4, 2009
Trendy Off-Road Vehicle Poses Deadly Risk CBS News Investigation Reveals
More Than 400 Death and Injury Lawsuits Related to Yamaha Rhino
(CBS) It's like a muscle-car for the backcountry - the hottest trend in
off-road vehicles. But a four-month CBS News investigation has found
evidence that the popular Yamaha Rhino doesn't need to be busting over
tough terrain to be dangerous.

"The Yamaha Rhino started to rock and it tipped over on my left side,
crushing my wrist," said Justin Miller, who lost his left hand after a
Rhino accident in May of 2008.

Miller says he wasn't jumping sand dunes or careening around corners -
just driving less than 15 miles per hour on flat ground when his
1,100-pound Rhino rolled over.

Miller told CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian
that he was wearing a helmet, belted in and that he didn't break any

Yamaha disputes that, citing a police report saying Justin was driving
20 miles an hour down a hill and hit a rock.

The Rhino has been a runaway hit in the off-road market since its
introduction in 2003; more than 150,000 have been sold to date. It turns
out no one tracks exactly how many people have been injured while riding
in these recreational vehicles.

But CBS News has learned of at least 440 Rhino-related death and injury
lawsuits across the U.S. - including Justin Miller's.

Miller said that if the rider were leaning left on a Rhino, "it would
tip over."

The Consumer Product Safety Commission cites hundreds of reported
injuries - including broken bones crushed legs, arms and heads - often
on level ground at relatively low speeds. The commission also cites a
disturbing number of deaths.

"The public needs to be aware that already 59 people have been killed in
these vehicles," said Inez Tenenbaum, head of the CPSC. "It's very high
risk. This vehicle has a high center of gravity and it will turn over."

Last March the CPSC and Yamaha agreed to a voluntary "free repair"
program. Yamaha temporarily suspended sales of all Rhino models and
agreed to make a series of repairs to improve handling and reduce
injuries. The CPSC told people to follow Yamaha safety guidelines,
finding many cases of unbelted riders.

Still the new head of the CSPC says her agency's investigation is far
from over.

"We'll continue to look at this, and if we have to take stronger
measures, we will," Tenenbaum said.

Yamaha Motor Corp, which did $16 billion in sales overall last year,
fiercely defends the Rhino. Arguing virtually all accidents are caused
by operator error - ignoring safety warnings, driving too fast on
pavement, or failing to wear seat belts or helmets.

"I think there's just a lot of people out there who give people like me
- my family - bad names and give these machines bad names," said Rhino
rider Darren Thau. "There's a lot of stupid people."

Yet one video shows a Yamaha dealer employee moving a Rhino from one
part of a dealership to another when it tips over.

Turns out, the potential for rollovers was well known to Yamaha
executives. According to documents obtained by CBS News, just 15 months
before its introduction at a testing ground in Kentucky, two riders
rolled over in a prototype for the Rhino. The driver: a Yamaha president
at the time. His passenger: the vice president in charge of Rhino
Development who sustained a foot injury.

Today there are no safety standards for these so-called "side-by-side"
vehicles. Right now, the industry is drafting a set of voluntary ones.
Tenenbaum says that may not be enough.

"With the number of deaths that have already occurred, we're even
thinking we should go to mandatory standards," Tenenbaum said.

Yamaha wouldn't provide someone to speak with us on camera so we went to
their headquarters in Southern California. But despite repeated requests
company lawyers ultimately decided not to let anyone speak on camera.

Yamaha did provide several off-camera interviews and answers to written
questions. In statements to CBS News, Yamaha said: The Rhino "...is a
safe, reliable and versatile vehicle...." and "...has won virtually
every 'first-in-class award' and top safety ratings...and that the
vehicles have been tested for thousands of hours and perform with a high
level of customer satisfaction."

Certainly not for this customer Justin Miller.

"A lot of kids before me had died," he said. "And if we had known that,
we would have never bought this product."

Now, after seven surgeries, 17-year-old Justin Miller is on his way to
college to study pre-med, hoping one day to become a doctor,
specializing in prosthetics.

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