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CBS' Rhino Probe Prompts Safety Reminder

On the heels of the CBS News investigation into the dangers of the Yamaha Rhino, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a safety reminder Wednesday to Yamaha Rhino riders.

The advisory urges all owners of the side-by-side vehicle to make sure they have received the free safety upgrades Yamaha agreed to provide earlier this year and to stop using the vehicle until the repairs are installed.

On Tuesday, CBS News Chief Investigative Correspondent Armen Keteyian reported on the concerns about the safety of the Rhino, which looks like a cross between a golf cart with attitude, and an all-terrain vehicle, or ATV. The CPSC has identified 59 Rhino related deaths, and CBS News learned there are at least 440 death and injury lawsuits pending against Yamaha. Yamaha says the Rhino is safe and that virtually all accidents are the result of operator error.

Inez Tenenbaum, Chairwoman of the CPSC told CBS News that the Commission's investigation of the Rhino is continuing.

Many of the accidents stem from rollovers in which drivers or passengers fell or were flung through the open door space to the ground, then smashed by the 1,100 pound vehicle. Adults and children as young as 3 years old have suffered gruesome injuries, including amputated limbs and crushed legs, arms or heads.

Plaintiffs say the Rhino is dangerously unstable due to its unusually narrow stance, high ground clearance and lack of a rear differential to help in turning. They also claim the Rhino's seat belts tend to unspool during rollovers, resulting in belted occupants being partially ejected.

Under pressure from the agency, Yamaha on March 31 announced a "free repair program" to improve the Rhino's handling and stability-seemingly a recall in everything but name. The company agreed to install spacers on the rear axles of the vehicles to make them a few inches wider, to remove their rear anti-sway bars, and install protective half-doors on Rhinos that don't already have them.

Owners who watch a safety video when they bring in their Rhinos will also get a $100 coupon toward purchase of a helmet. Yamaha stressed that the action was not a recall, but a "voluntary repair program." Avoiding the term "recall" rankled some agency officials and consumers, but in agreeing to make the repairs, Yamaha insisted on calling it something else.

The Rhino is not an ATV, but a "side-by-side" -- a category of off-road vehicle that is gaining popularity and is not subject to any government standards. Unlike ATVs, which riders straddle like a motorcycle, side-by-sides are more jeep-like, with seating for two, a steering wheel instead of handlebars, a rear cargo bed -- and safety features such as seat belts and a roll cage.

The Rhino has a narrower track and higher ground clearance than most all other popular side-by-sides-enabling it to crawl over rocks and through tight spaces. But just as a stool tips more easily than an easy chair, experts say a narrower, taller vehicle is more apt to roll over in turning maneuvers or uneven terrain. Engineers for plaintiffs' lawyers say the Rhino has a low stability factor, a rough arithmetical measure of rollover risk based on a vehicle's track width and the height of its center of gravity.

Yamaha has touted the Rhino's off-road prowess with a made-up word -"terrainability." "Don't Just Tackle Tough Terrain," said a Rhino ad. "Make It Say Uncle."

Yet serious accidents have allegedly occurred under seemingly benign conditions-at low to moderate speeds, on relatively flat ground, and without drivers knowingly doing anything adventurous or sporty. Rollovers have even occurred at dealerships when employees were moving Rhinos around the lot, or taking customers on test drives, court records show.

Yamaha maintains there is nothing wrong with the Rhino, and that rollovers don't occur when drivers follow instructions on warning labels and in the owner's manual. The Rhino is "a safe, reliable and versatile vehicle,'' and "virtually every Rhino-related incident involves at least one warned against behavior (such as failure to wear a seatbelt and/or helmet, underage driver, excessive speed, alcohol/drugs or inattention to terrain/collision),'' according to a statement issued by Yamaha Motor Corp. USA.

On Wednesday, Yamaha issued a statement in response to the CBS report on the Rhino.

"Yamaha stands firmly behind the Rhino and will continue to vigorously defend the product against baseless claims and distortions, whether they be from plaintiffs' law firms or biased, inaccurate media reports parroting these lawyers' claims. The Rhino is a safe and useful off-road vehicle when driven responsibly by licensed operators aged 16 or older and according to the instructions and warnings in our on-product labels, owner's manuals, and other safety materials."

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