For parents wanting to provide their children some good, clean off-roading fun, the Fushin, a smaller-than-normal all-terrain vehicle, seemed just the thing.
Except the Chinese import with jaunty yellow paint and a low $250 price tag was missing one feature: front brakes.
In the $5 billion market for A.T.V.’s, the skyrocketing growth of Chinese imports is becoming the latest challenge for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is starting a global campaign to improve the safety of a product that kills more people — about 900 a year — than any of the 15,000 other products the commission regulates.
Fushin, whose A.T.V. also had sharp handlebars that could cause injury, agreed in May to a voluntary recall of the models marketed for children. But that did not solve the larger problem. A few weeks ago, at the port of Houston, a shipload of Chinese A.T.V.’s that did not meet United States safety standards was seized by customs officials.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission is creating new safety rules under legislation passed last year that took voluntary industry standards for A.T.V.’s and made them mandatory. And it is scrutinizing sales of Chinese A.T.V.’s over the Internet.
“We’ve seen cases where the Chinese manufacturers have not met our standards,” said Inez Tenenbaum, the commission’s chairwoman, who led a 10-member United States delegation that met last month with government officials and A.T.V. manufacturers in the industrial city of Taizhou in the Jiangsu Province of China. “We explained to them, here are the specs that we have and you will have to build based on our standards.”
That, however, may be easier said than done. While last year’s legislation gave the commission broad new powers to regulate A.T.V.’s, both imported and American-made, the Chinese-made vehicles present a special problem. As is the case with other Chinese imports, like tainted toys and drywall, legal accountability can prove hard to establish, and the commission often can only clamp down on problem products after the damage has been done and reported.
A big concern is that most of the Chinese A.T.V.’s are used by children, some as young as 6.
The legislation expanding the commission’s purview was the result of tainted imports from China in the first place — contaminated pet food and toys coated in lead paint — and covers items used by children under 12, including A.T.V.’s.
“As with other products that come in from China,” said Russ Reiner, a trial lawyer in Redding, Calif., who specializes in vehicle rollover cases, “it is difficult for the commission to have a mandate that will really affect Chinese manufacturers. It is difficult to police. Many times, products come here through shell corporations. The commission can warn the public about products that are not safe. But generally, there is no action until after consumers make complaints.”
Unlike automobiles, which face strict federal safety standards and whose users must be licensed, safety requirements for off-road vehicles are far more limited. Drivers of A.T.V.’s generally need no license, and teenagers frequently post videos on YouTube showing off their daring stunts.
For that reason, the commission has an active campaign with local media to publicize safety problems when they occur, including pointing the finger this week at the reality television father Jon Gosselin for riding an A.T.V. with a 5-year-old perched onboard.
For the most part, the A.T.V. market is divided into two groups: The first, in industry jargon, are the traditionals, which are big American and Japanese companies like Polaris , Honda , Yamaha, Arctic Cat , Kawasaki and Suzuki. The traditionals make and sell their products in the United States.
Chinese imports, which began to enter the market in the last decade, make up the second group. In 2002, fewer than 100,000 imported A.T.V.’s were sold, compared with 800,000 sold by the traditional sellers.
That gap has narrowed. Last year, according to a report from Power Products Marketing, a research firm based in Minneapolis, the traditionals sold only 220,000 more units than the Chinese, although both groups’ sales have suffered in the economic downturn.
Chinese A.T.V. makers specialize in the smaller, less-powerful vehicles that are usually used by children, from 6 to 16 years old. More than 83 percent of all youth vehicles are imports, while the traditional makers cater to the adult market and manufacture the bulk of the bigger models.
For parents, the appeal of a Chinese A.T.V. is not only its flashy design, but a price tag that is a third to a half lower than its domestic counterparts.
“It’s basically a race to the bottom to see who can get the cheapest machine,” said Matthew Camp, an industry analyst with Power Products. “For some Chinese companies, it is how many units can they pump out in order to survive. Margins are thin and they have to pump them out to make money.”
On average, the commission reports, more than 100 children are killed each year in A.T.V. accidents, and 40,000 more are sent to the emergency room. The commission does not break down whether those accidents occurred on Chinese A.T.V.’s or domestic ones.
Until last year’s Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, A.T.V. safety standards were strictly voluntary and followed only by the traditional sellers. The trade association representing traditional A.T.V. makers welcomed the mandatory standards as a way of leveling the playing field with the imports.
Paul Vitrano, general counsel for the trade association the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, accompanied Mrs. Tenenbaum on her trip to China.
The mandatory standards govern design and require A.T.V. makers and dealers to provide buyers with free classes and videos in safe A.T.V. use.
“Our trip to China showed there was a lack of understanding or information about the new standards,” Mr. Vitrano said. “We told the Chinese that there can be virtually no Chinese exports to the U.S. without compliance. Some companies are ahead of the game in complying. Others are not aware of it or don’t understand what to do.”
Of course, traditional sellers have much to gain from shutting their rising competitors out of the American market, or, at least, leveling the playing field. And most deaths on A.T.V.’s are adults, most often riding one of the traditional vehicles.
For that reason, consumer advocates say the mandatory standards are inadequate, regardless of who makes the vehicle.
“A.T.V.’s have been killing and maiming for years,” said Sue Rabe, who helped found Concerned Families for ATV Safety, after her 10-year-old son was killed when the A.T.V. he was driving rolled over and fell on him.
“This is taking the Chinese up to the American standard. But the American standard isn’t good, either. These things should be regulated like cars. They are powerful and people don’t understand that until it is too late. There is no way you can replace a loved one.”
Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety for the Consumer Federation of America, said that domestic A.T.V. manufacturers supported mandatory safety standards to fight back against the increase in market share from the imports.
“They wanted to shift the focus from safety in general to the Chinese imports,” Ms. Weintraub said. “We still have a problem. They are not looking at the vehicles and saying what can be done to reduce the number of deaths and injuries.”
All A.T.V. makers face another challenge, too. The new safety legislation limits the lead content that can be in any product intended for use by children under 12, and A.T.V.’s have many lead parts. Rather than ban all child-size A.T.V.’s until the lead is removed, the Consumer Product Safety Commission placed a two-year stay on enforcing these provisions.
The delay was motivated by concern that if smaller A.T.V.’s were banned, children would just use adult-size vehicles. The commission says that more than 90 percent of the accidents involving children occur because they are operating A.T.V.’s that are too large and powerful for them.
David Corneille, the owner of Blackbeard Power Sports in Clinton Township, Mich., a Detroit suburb, said he did not see the popularity of Chinese models waning.
Over five years of selling Chinese imports, he says the quality has only gone up. Then there is the other factor. At his store, an average A.T.V. for a child sells for about $500, while a model for teenagers costs approximately $800.
“With all the unemployment, it’s tough for the American public,” he said. “They want something they can afford.”