The Consumer Product Safety Commission voted Wednesday to write mandatory rules to regulate the four-wheel vehicles, following more than 100 deaths since 2003. Riders have suffered dozens of injuries, too - some leading to amputations.
ROVs, also called side-by-sides, are two-passenger motorized vehicles designed for drivers 16 years and older. They resemble a cross between a rugged-looking golf cart and a miniature-Jeep, and have a roll cage - metal bars framing the cab.
The industry proposed voluntary regulations for side-by-sides, but CPSC staffers said they fell short. Agency staff have expressed concern about the vehicles and rollover risks.
The commission will solicit comments from industry, consumer advocates and others as it writes the rules. This is the beginning of a process that could take many months, even years.
ROVs first appeared on the market in the late 1990s. Since 2003, CPSC says 116 people have died, including young children, and more than 150 have been injured. Injuries have involved crushing fractures to legs, feet and arms and some riders have lost limbs.
Safety advocates say the commission's vote puts the industry on notice.
"This is an instance where the industry has not been responding quickly and effectively enough to the well-documented hazards caused by these products," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America.
ROV makers, however, insist the vehicles are safe.
"We know the vehicles are safe when used responsibly," the Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association said in a statement. "We must emphasize the importance of consumers making the right choices when driving an ROV."
Former agency chief, Nancy Nord, first directed the CPSC staff to investigate the vehicles and deaths a year ago.
In March, Yamaha Motor Corp. USA recalled more than 100,000 of its Rhino off-highway recreational vehicles for repairs after two models were linked to 46 deaths in the past six years. In many cases, riders were not wearing seat belts, the commission said. And in a number of incidents, rollovers happened on level ground at relatively slow speeds, the agency said.
Ain August cited documents showing Yamaha executives were aware of the safety issues more than a year before their ROV - the Rhino - was introduced.
A Rhino carrying top Yamaha executives rolled over at a testing ground in Kentucky 15 months prior to the line's debut, reported CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian.
The vehicles can reach top speeds of more than 35 miles an hour. Industry officials declined to say how fast they can go, but several dealers put top speeds at about 40 to 50 miles an hour. Yamaha did not immediately return calls about top speeds for its ROVs.
Currently, there are mandatory restrictions for ATVs, such as speed limits for youth models. But there are no standards, voluntary or otherwise, for the side-by-sides, which have the roll cage and a different steering system.
About 140,000 ROVs were sold last year in the United States.