Roy Deppa knows why all-terrain vehicles often maim and kill: They roll over and crush their riders.

He knew it nearly a quarter-century ago – when he ran thousands of tests on ATVs for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. What bothers Deppa now is why it’s been so hard to stop the injuries and deaths.

“You’re looking at a very frustrated guy,” says Deppa, an engineer who retired in 2005. “I’ve spent my career trying to make these things safer, and it seems every time I tried, someone or something stopped me.”

The story of how the nation’s top consumer watchdog agency has failed to fix one of the ATV’s most obvious hazards – instability – is a tale of regulatory timidity and industry clout.

Each year, ATV accidents send about 136,000 riders to emergency rooms and kill 800 more. About one of every three fatal crashes starts with the ATV overturning.

Deppa’s former agency once stood up to the makers of ATVs by taking aggressive legal action to push three-wheel models off the market, a move that slashed death and injury rates.

But since then, the agency hasn’t challenged the design of four-wheel ATVs. Instead, it has often bowed to the ATV manufacturers’ views.

Over the past decade, ATVs have become wildly popular. More than 7 million are in use, and consumers buy about 900,000 a year. They are faster, heavier and more sophisticated, with many models featuring four-wheel drive, power steering and heavy-duty suspensions.

All those factors could affect rollovers, but Deppa says the agency hasn’t done any meaningful stability testing since 1991 even though casualty counts continue to rise.

In part, it’s also a matter of good intentions gone awry. Moving to more stable, four-wheel models was an improvement, but a side effect was to shift the safety debate to rider behavior and away from ATV design.

“The machines that are out there now essentially have the blessing of the agency,” Deppa says. “And if you’re going to bless them, you’re going to have to live with the carnage.”

Oversized tricycles

With big, puffy wheels and a minibike engine, the machines Honda called “all-terrain cycles” puzzled agency officials. By early 1984, however, growing reports of injuries and deaths had begun to trickle in.

Deppa did quick calculations and found the third wheel fooled riders into thinking the machine was stable. In reality, they had to learn to shift their weight – often in counterintuitive ways – to keep the ATV from pitching or rolling over sideways.

Deppa drew some squiggly sketches of a guy riding an ATV, typed up his findings and didn’t think much more about it. “About that time,” he says, “the whole thing sort of blew up.”

By the fall of 1984, the commission knew of more than 80 deaths and had seen the injury rate grow fourfold in the prior two years. The agency – overseen by commissioners appointed by the president – summoned executives from the major ATV manufacturers to explain.

Deppa understood why many inside his agency bought the industry’s argument that riders were the problem. He had read many ATV accident reports that sounded too similar: The driver takes an impossibly steep hill, flips backward, dies. The driver doesn’t wear a helmet, hits something, dies. The driver get drunk, crashes, dies.

Then one day Deppa learned of a crash that changed everything.

On March 18, 1984, the 15-year-old Sherry Steier and another girl rode their ATVs across a fallow field at about 25 mph near Steier’s home in Oconto, Wis. Steier was driving in a straight line when her three-wheel Yamaha ATV flipped forward, fell on top of her and crushed her to death.

An engineer Steier’s family hired concluded a mechanical failure may have led to the accident, but Deppa still wondered how an ATV could flip so quickly and with so little warning.

The next year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission launched a full-scale inquiry into ATVs. The tests revealed that even at slow speeds, the machine had a “bucking bronco” effect that a rider couldn’t always correct. The machines could roll and flip before riders knew they were in danger.

The tests helped show the machines were especially dangerous for kids, who lacked the judgment to stay out of risky situations.

The machines got plenty of bad publicity – newspaper stories and congressional hearings pointed out their hazards. By December 1986, when the agency knew of 600 deaths and tens of thousands of injuries, commissioners moved to get the industry to buy back three-wheel ATVs and four-wheelers purchased for use by children under 16.

It was an unprecedented action that confronted the major ATV companies – Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Polaris – with the prospect of shelling out $1 billion to repurchase their machines from consumers.

How many lives?

Within a year, the get-tough posture softened.

Under a settlement with the agency and Justice Department, the companies agreed to voluntary regulation. They would promote safety training, label all new ATVs with warnings about the risk of death or injury if riders didn’t operate them properly, and ensure that their machines met some basic design standards.

The biggest change: The companies would stop selling three-wheel ATVs.

The deal, called a consent decree, looked like a major victory for the commission. But the commission didn’t require the companies to buy back three-wheelers. The agency’s database shows that at least 821 people have died riding them since 1989.

Nor was the deal much of a sacrifice for the ATV companies. Three-wheel ATVs accounted for only 6 percent of sales by that time. The companies had all but abandoned them in favor of four-wheel models.

Everyone agreed four-wheel machines were more stable. But as Deppa and co-workers believed, that didn’t necessarily mean they were safe. He and others suspected a more stable ATV might save lives, but they didn’t know how many. The commission’s own studies couldn’t provide an answer.

Deppa retired from the commission in September 2005 and with a partner now runs a consulting firm that advises companies on product safety. One of their first big clients: the ATV industry.

“I know a lot of people back at the agency think I’ve gone over to the dark side,” Deppa says. “I see this as work aimed at trying to make ATVs safer.”

Brent Walth is a reporter for The Oregonian of Portland, Ore.

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