February 13, 2020
Between June and December, Polaris issued five Stop Sale/Stop Ride notices for some 92,000 off-road vehicles. These vehicles are the newest model years of vehicles that have been continually recalled since 2013. Not one announcement could be found on the CPSC website – in fact, the CPSC itself was nowhere to be found in this process of alerting consumers.
Four of these Stop Sale/Stop Ride notices involved fire-related defects. And given the manufacturer’s longstanding and persistent problems with thermal-related hazards and fires that have resulted in massive property damage, severe injuries and deaths – and in a 2018 settlement with the CPSC featuring the biggest fine in the agency’s history for failing to report fires – you might think that a joint, coordinated recall announcement between the manufacturer and the commission would be in order.
Polaris issued a fifth Stop Sale/Stop Ride on Oct. 23rd for 12,845 model year 2020 Ranger models for defective seat belts.
Informing the public of products hazards is kinda the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s jam. The 1972 Consumer Product Safety Act notes that the law’s very purpose is to “to protect the public against unreasonable risks of injury associated with consumer products” and “to assist consumers in evaluating the comparative safety of consumer products.” The Who We Are What We Do section of the CPSC’s website notes: “CPSC works to reduce the risk of injuries and deaths from consumer products by: informing and educating consumers through the media, state and local governments, private organizations, and by responding to consumer inquiries.”
But perhaps Polaris is now so practiced at launching recalls for fire-related hazards it doesn’t need any assists from the CPSC. And perhaps the CPSC, having spent so much quality time with Polaris officials, just trusts them to do the right thing.
The Consumer Federation of America, however, is pretty concerned.
“These are not recalls, these are unilateral actions by the company, and this is problematic. It’s important for the CPSC to be engaged in voluntary recalls as they are on many products under their jurisdiction. We have a lot of challenges in terms of consumer response to recalls and when recalls aren’t called by that name, it creates further impediments to consumers taking the necessary actions to protect them and their families,” says Rachel Weintraub, CFA’s legislative director and general counsel. “We hope it doesn’t become a trend.”
Weintraub is further troubled that these notices have been put out by this particular manufacturer and these particular defects.
“I do find it curious – the CPSC and Polaris have been working on recalls for these products for a long time,” she says. “It’s unclear why all of a sudden, certain actions are not being coordinated with the commission, especially since the CPSC put out a statement with Polaris in December 2017 about these hazards. It’s still an open question whether all of the issues raised in that have been effectively addressed.”
Your One Word Answer™: No
Yesterday, the CFA published its own analysis of off highway vehicle (OHV) recalls (including the Polaris Stop Sale/Stop Ride notices) over the past decade. Polaris was a standout. CFA identified 19 brands responsible for 110 OHV recalls, and Polaris had, by far, the most, with 40. Fire-related hazards topped the list of causes, accounting for 50 recalls – Polaris had nearly a third of that subset. In addition, the CPSC reports tallied at least 70 injuries and two deaths linked to recalled OHVs – one was the July 2015 death of 15-year-old Baylee Hoaldridge in Utah. (The injuries and deaths noted in the CPSC recalls do not reflect the total number. There have been at least four deaths and dozens of known injuries related to the Polaris fire-hazards alone.)
Four Fire-Related Stop Sale/Stop Ride Notices
Since the CPSC didn’t think it important to spread the word, we’ve conveniently assembled the latest four Polaris fire-related notices here:
June 7, 2019: Stop Ride for 2,900 2019 RZR XP Turbo Vehicles for a clutch inlet duct cover used as an “aid during manufacturing” that was not removed before shipping, creating a fire hazard. Polaris claimed five reported fires. This clutch inlet duct cover is likely preventing airflow needed for cooling – particularly in Polaris vehicles, which by design have very little air dissipating the excessive engine heat.
This indicates a lack of quality control at the Polaris plants. Some prior fire claims point to obstructed or damaged clutch outlet ducts as possible fire causes.
Polaris has previously recalled the 2016-2018 RZR XP Turbo vehicles for other fire-related problems.
Oct. 11, 2019: Stop Sale/Stop Ride Notice for 70,000 2018-2020 Ranger XP 1000 Models and 2019 Pro XD Vehicles for potential to damage to the fuel line in the event a drive belt “breaks or fails during operation.” The fix for the Ranger XP 1000 is an “updated clutch cover outlet duct mount to protect the fuel line,” while the 2019 Pro XD gets the same fix plus “an update in the fuel line routing.” Polaris claims four fires and no injuries.
Drive belt failures are a perennial problem for Polaris – in part because of heat degradation –which is why Polaris “reimagined” the design for the 2018 Ranger XP 1000, adding a new clutch cover designed to increase airflow and keep the drive belt cool for a longer-lasting life. Clearly that didn’t work.
As for the fuel line routing update, we’ve heard that one before – this was the subject in Recall 16-146, the single largest of 13 official Polaris fire-related recalls, covering some 133,000 model years 2013-2016 RZR 900 and RZR 1000 recreational off-highway vehicles. Guess the “fixes” they created for those model years didn’t fix things after all.
Oct. 22, 2019: Stop Sale/Stop Ride Notice for 8 2019 Ranger XP 1000 Models that were assembled with fuel rail mounting fasteners that were improperly torqued. Polaris says there are no reported incidents.
Really – only eight? A company as plagued with quality problems as Polaris should provide an explanation as to how they were able to precisely identify these models.
Dec. 20, 2019: Stop Sale/Stop Ride Notice for 6,600 2019-2020 Ranger XP 1000 Models built with incorrectly routed fuel line that could cause a fuel leak if a drive belt breaks or fails during operation. Polaris claims no reported incidents.
Once again – fuel line problems plus drive belt failures equal fires. Some of the same vehicles as the October 2019 Stop Sale/Stop Ride, same failed drive belts. Now the fix for the XP 1000 isn’t just a new clutch cover, it’s a re-routed fuel line, too. Did Polaris discover another problem?
The Ranger XP 1000 debuted in 2017, so the two Stop Sale/Stop Ride notices for the 2018-2020 model years mean many of the vehicles in its entire run have been recalled for fire risks.
How Recalls Are Supposed to Work
The law is pretty clear about what is required when a manufacturer determines that a substantial product hazard exists. Under Section 15 of the Consumer Product Safety Act, the company must “immediately inform” (as in, within 24 hours-immediate) the Commission upon obtaining information which “reasonably supports the conclusion” that a product does not comply with a mandated or voluntary safety standard or contains “a defect which could create a substantial product hazard, or creates an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death.”
According to 16 CFR Part 1115, Step One for the manufacturer is to determine whether the product has a defect in the product’s manufacturing, design, packaging or in the consumer warnings. A substantial product hazard would exist if the public is exposed to significant numbers of defective products or if the possible injury is serious or is likely to occur. Step Two is to figure out if the defect is “a substantial product hazard.” If a product is not already subject to some existing safety standard, the questions become: Is there a pattern? Are lots of these defective products out in the marketplace? Does the defect create a substantial risk of injury to the public?
Once the CPSC receives a Section 15 report, it springs into action and, using all of its engineering and human factors experts, makes its own determination if the defect should result in a recall. The agency basically weighs the same factors as the manufacturer – pattern, number of products and severity of risk.
If the CPSC concludes that a recall is warranted, the manufacturer is obligated to submit a correction action plan outlining the fixes and periodic reports noting its progress.
Hypothetical: Would a highly combustible product that had an exposure to the public of, say 70,000 units, plagued with drive belt failures that led to fuel line leaks that had already caused four fires be considered a defect that posed a substantial risk of injury to the public?
Hypothetical: Would such a circumstance trigger Section 15 reporting obligations?
CPSC spokesman Joe Martyak says that manufacturers can and do launch unilateral actions like stop sale/stop use notices. Not every product defect results in a remedy that involves a repair. For example, consumers might simply throw away a defective, low-value item like a little toy ball or a sand pail, the manufacturer may change its processes going forward, and that might be considered an acceptable response, without a literal product recall.
Unless the CPSC does its own investigation or otherwise involves itself in the process, a manufacturer can recall a product and offer a repair without filing a Corrective Action Plan or monthly progress reports with the agency. A recall is a negotiation between the CPSC and manufacturer, that includes an agreement on the remedy, which the agency will monitor, he says.
“Section 15 of our statute defines the circumstances when a manufacturer must report — it depends on the circumstances – and the CPSC holds them accountable to that provision,” Martyak says. “If the agency conducts an investigation and believes a recall is warranted, it will pursue a recall with the company involved.”
Hypothetical: Is there a universe in which a regulatory agency founded to protect consumers from product hazards might consider these facts and decide that no recall was necessary?
Is that what happened with Polaris’s October 11, 2019 Stop Sale/Stop Ride?
Martyak would only say generally: “We don’t comment on our investigations.”
Neither Recalls nor Stop Sale/Stop Rides Stop Fires
As disturbing as these under-the-radar recalls and the CPSC’s hands-off attitude are, the continuing Polaris fires are scarier.
In January 2019, Jason Henke was traveling on Highway 93 in Golden Valley, Arizona, in a 2015 Polaris RZR XP 1000, when it suddenly burst into flames. Henke had only a few seconds to escape the fire, and suffered burns to his hand, wrist, arm, and face. The RZR itself was completely destroyed by fire within a few minutes. This was Henke’s second 2015 RZR XP 1000 to burn to a crisp. In March 2015, his new RZR XP 1000 burst into flames. Henke, who also suffered burns in that incident, demanded a refund from Polaris. The company refused, but sent him a replacement. The incidents were traumatic for Henke, a combat veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Henke’s 2015 Polaris RZR XP 1000 was actually recalled and remedied 8 times in four years for various fire-causing defects– including an ECU calibration, a voltage regulator replacement, and a fuse box seal replacement. In April 2016, it was recalled for an improperly routed fuel tank vent line that may have insufficient clearance to the exhaust head pipe, posing a fire hazard (the same problem plaguing the new Ranger XP 1000 vehicles). And in January 2018, it was recalled to replace “a heat shield that may not adequcately shield exhaust gasses in the event of an exhaust silencer crack, which could lead to melting of nearby components and pose a fire hazard.” Henke had all of these “fixes” completed.
In February 2019, Chad Reis and Thomas Lamb were riding in a 2019 RZR Turbo, near
Thousand Palms, California, when the vehicle caught fire. Both were able to exit the RZR, but not without sustaining severe burns. A few 2019 RZR Turbos were covered by the June 7 Stop Ride notice – was Reis’s RZR included? How can anyone know? Should it have been? Again, how can anyone know?
In May 2019, Steven Groves, 23, died of his burns after a 2017 Polaris RZR Turbo burst into flames, as he and the owner and driver, James Bingham, rode the Weiser Sand Dunes in Idaho. Bingham’s vehicle had been recalled and repaired in 2018.
Every fire hazard cited in a Polaris notice is a stand-in for the real problem: a high-powered engine, with the exhaust header directed forward and inches from occupants, crammed into engine compartment that can’t seem to get enough ventilation. We know, the public knows, and the CPSC surely knows that each one of these remedies is just a Band Aid. Yet, the commission apply lets Polaris apply another – and another – and now it permits the Medina, Minnesota, manufacturer to do so outside of the recall system.
Safety Research & Strategies founder and President Sean Kane said the Polaris situation harkens back to a Nissan Van problem he investigated in the early 1990s. The minivan was brought to the U.S., based on a Japanese market urban delivery vehicle. Fitted with a larger engine, and stuffed into an engine compartment that was inches from the occupants, the vehicle couldn’t get adequate cooling.
“After Nissan did three recalls for engine compartment fires that only replaced discrete part failing from thermal degradation, the fires continued,” Kane said. The fourth recall was a bolder attempt to bring the engine compartment temperatures down that involved extensive parts replacement and reconfigured cooling system components. Fires continued because the complexity of the fix led to repair errors and it was a demonstration of challenges presented by post market repairs for problems rooted in the design and architecture of the vehicle.”
Is the Nissan Van a prescient tale of what’s to come for Polaris? Different regulatory agency (NHTSA), different rules, but maybe. Nissan, facing growing pressure from media, organized and angry mothers, Congress, NHTSA and class action attorneys, exercised the nuclear option codified in NHTSA’s recall requirements, if you can’t remedy or replace with a like vehicle, you buy ‘em back. Nissan’s buyback of the ill-fated Van was a remedy that stopped the fires.
So far, the only pressure on Polaris to do the right thing is coming from the media and litigation.