MORONGO BASIN — Riders of Rhinos and similar recreational vehicles will have to wear helmets and seatbelts next year under a new state law that has the off-roading community buzzing.
The law defines and sets safety rules for a new class of vehicles: recreational off-highway vehicles. The Polaris RZR, Kawasaki Teryx and Yamaha Rhino are among the models affected by the new law. The vehicles are also called utility terrain vehicles, or UTVs, and side-by-sides.
The law requires riders to wear seatbelts and helmets — provisions that anger some in the off-road community.
“Sometimes I wear a helmet but sometimes I don’t. That should be my choice, not big brother,” one user on an online message board, UTV Underground, wrote. The sentiment was echoed throughout online forums for off-roaders.
Owners won’t be allowed to modify their two-seat vehicles into four-seaters.
The law also prevents children and smaller adults from riding in recreational OHVs, because passengers must have both feet flat on the floorboard.
“Essentially that wipes out children and small adults,” Jeff Knoll, the public relations director for the Off-Road Business Association, said via telephone Tuesday, Aug. 28. “My wife is 5 foot 3 and she doesn’t meet the safety criteria to ride under AB 1595.”
Assembly Bill 1595 was written by Paul Cook, Yucca Valley’s Republican assemblyman, and passed both houses of the state legislature unanimously, without any opposing testimony, Knoll said. Signed by the governor July 24, it goes into effect Jan. 1, 2013.
However, after off-roading forums urged members to call and write Cook’s office, he wrote a “fix” that delays implementation to July 2013 and removes the requirement that a passenger’s feet be on the floorboard.
The fix, Assembly Bill 1266, is in the Rules Committee right now, according to Cook’s office.
Knoll praised the assemblyman for being receptive to the complaints of off-roaders. “Cook’s office was really just an easy target. If you want to point fingers at someone, the culprit is really the CPSC,” he said.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission is a federal agency “charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of injury or death,” according to its online overview.
In the 1980s, the commission shut down sales of three-wheelers called ATCs after injuries and deaths were reported, Knoll said.
In 2009, the commission required Yamaha to suspend sales of some Rhinos until the company improved their safety features. The panel found design flaws may have contributed to 49 accidental deaths in Rhinos.
Learning from the demise of the ATC, manufacturers decided to address safety concerns and try to avoid a federal shutdown of all recreational OHV sales, Knoll said.
A trade group, the Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association, took the lead in working with the federal government to come up with design guidelines and safety warnings.
“I think what the manufacturers were doing was trying to starve off some of the same problems they had with the ATC,” Knoll said.
Cook’s bill was based on model legislation from the trade group, and was supported by its members: Arctic Cat, BRP, John Deere, Kawasaki, Polaris and Yamaha.
In its statement of support, the group hints at the federal hammer lurking behind the new legislation: “In order to ensure that ROVs continue to be available, and safely used, it is critical that industry and enthusiasts support legislation to ensure the vehicles are used as designed and recommended by the manufacturers.”