Safety Agency Hides Danger of All-Terrain Vehicles

Published Jul 13, 2008

A top official at the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) delayed a critical report on all-terrain vehicle (ATV) safety and attempted to reverse its conclusion that ATVs were becoming more dangerous to ride. During the 3 months of delay, nearly 200 people died and 30,000 were injured in ATV accidents, a third of whom were children under the age of 16.1

CPSC, an agency charged with protecting the public from dangerous consumer products, began monitoring trends in ATV-related deaths and injuries in the early 1980's, summarizing its findings in annual reports. Rising deaths and injuries during the mid 1980s led CPSC to institute regulations on ATV manufacturers and distributors with the goal of improving safety, especially for children.2

When these regulations expired in 1998, the ATV industry entered a voluntary agreement with CPSC to continue complying with most of the previously mandatory standards.3 By 2002, just four years later, reported fatalities and injuries involving ATVs had nearly doubled.4 Alarmed at these numbers, consumer advocacy groups strongly petitioned CPSC to reintroduce regulation to curb rising ATV fatalities and injuries among children.5

At this point, John G. Mullan, a former attorney for the ATV industry6 and then-general counsel for the CPSC, stepped in. Mullan pressured Robin Ingle, one of the agency's top health statisticians, and her supervisor to insert false language into the 2003 ATV report to say that the risk of death was decreasing.7 Ingle recalls that Mullan "pulled out his angry lawyer tactics on us," but the scientists held their ground.8 "The numbers are what they are," said Ingle.9

Unable to directly manipulate the report's conclusion, Mullan instead refused to authorize its publication.10 Mullan succeeded in delaying its release for three months before consumer groups and the media noticed the absence of the high-profile report, which usually appears by September,11 and clamored for its release. Mullan had no choice but to sign-off on the document, and the 2003 Annual Report of ATV Deaths and Injuries was finally released on January 26, 2005.12

Two months later, Mullan again interfered with agency science when CPSC commissioners met to discuss a Consumer Federation petition to prohibit the sale of adult-sized ATVs to children under 16. The New York Times reports that Mullan sidelined agency scientists at the meeting, including Robin Ingle, while he downplayed the need for regulation. "He had hijacked the presentation," Ingle told the Times, "He was distorting the numbers in order to benefit industry and defeat the petition."13 The agency ultimately rejected the petition.

In a 2008 interview, Ingle stated that she had requested the 2006 Annual Report through the Freedom of Information Act, but CPSC had stonewalled her request at every turn.16  Though the data has since been released, ATV-related injuries are still pervasive; in 2010, emergency departments treated an estimated 115,000 injuries associated with ATVs. Children younger than 16 constituted 17 percent of reported fatalities in 2006 and a quarter of estimated injuries in 201017. In 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) banned three-wheel ATVs, and major manufacturers in the ATV industry agreed not only to limit the engine size of vehicles but also to produce devices that would slow the speed down for ATVs intended for children under 16. CPSIA also pushed for driver-training programs.

1. Ingle, Robin. 2007. "Which Toys are OK? Don't Ask the Safety Police." The Washington Post. December 23.

2. All-Terrain Vehicles Final Consent Decree, Civil Action No. 87-3525 GAG, March 14, 1988.

3. CPSC. 2005 Annual Report of ATV Deaths and Injuries (Amended). 8 March 2007.  Accessed Feb 11, 2008.

4. CPSC. 2003 Annual Report of ATV Deaths and Injuries. 26 January 2007. Accessed Feb 11, 2008.

5. See for example the Petition to Ban All-Terrain Vehicle for Use by Children Under 16 Years Old submitted to CPSC by the Consumer Federation of America. 19 August 2002. Accessed Feb 11, 2008.

6. Lipton, Eric. "Safety Agency Faces Scrutiny Amid Changes." New York Times. 2 September 2007.

7. Ingle 2007.

8. Ingle, Robin. Interview with Author. 30 January 2008.

9. Ingle 2008.

10. Ingle 2007.

11. Ingle 2008.

12. CPSC 2003.

13. Lipton 2007.

14. CPSC 2005.

15. CPSC 2005. 16. Ingle 2008.