By: Bill Uhl
Court-Qualified Expert Witness and Safety Trainer regarding ATVs, UTVs, snowmobiles and motorcycles dirt bikes
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Attorneys, please note: If one of your cases involves a side-by-side (also known as a UTV, SxS, or RZR), I can help you examine often-overlooked factors related to the incident.
Here are just a couple of examples:
As a brief illustration, what alerts you when you look at the photo below? Can you tell how well the side-by-side’s safety device was maintained?
When we drive our cars and trucks, most of us don’t notice every time we enter our vehicle how well the seat belts are working. We are not prone to even think about seat belt maintenance. This is a sharp contrast to other items like regularly changing the oil in our vehicles, which we know is required maintenance.
Regularly washing a vehicle’s seat belt webbing and rinsing out the retractors are not tasks that most ROV operators and owners consider doing. What makes the seat belts of a side-by-side, UTV, RUV, SxS, ROV or RZR so different from highway rigs is where people use these off-highway vehicles.
Cars and trucks are designed for use on a paved roadway. The utility task vehicles this article discusses operate in off-road riding areas around the world that encounter very diverse conditions. They may operate in heavy mud or rain for part of the day, then transition to bright sun and experience the dust and grit common in off-highway riding areas.
Even though most owner’s and operator’s manuals include sections about seat belt maintenance, my experience when teaching all kinds of RUV classes for decades is that people don’t even think to look at seat belt maintenance.
They are not only unaware seat belt maintenance is a safety issue, some owners and operators have used their seat belts to the point that they no longer even work. In one of my UTV Safety Training Classes, the vehicle of one student was so caked with mud on its inside that I could barely see the retractor for his lap belt. Of course, his seat belt retractor did not work at all.
You may have realized by now that manufacturers have generally failed to explain why it is vitally important for owners and operators to check and maintain this essential part of their utility task vehicles. Ongoing proper maintenance is the only way to ensure the level of safety a side-by-side was designed with.
Owners and operators should first be made aware by manufacturers of the important safety reasons for checking this safety device each time the owner / operator gets into the vehicle before they drive away. Because people don’t know what they don’t know, it is up to the most knowledgeable, people (in this case, manufacturers), to inform both new and experienced operators about this mostly unrealized safety issue that absolutely must be addressed.
Although some guided recreational tours educate their customers and properly maintain their vehicles, many do not. In many cases that I’ve worked on, tour facilities failed to ensure customer safety. Many of the guests at these recreational facilities (often novice, untrained first-time operators) assumed that they were paying for a fun experience in which the facility was providing assurance that steps had been taken to meet the standard of care and they would be safe on the trail. Sometimes this assumption is true. When it is not, a tip over or a rollover can result in an injury that can become life-changing or even death.
With proper education, operators, owners and passengers are given a chance to make an informed decision regarding how to ensure their safety while operating these unique types of vehicles. Please note: Manufacturers clearly state that UTVs / side-by-sides / RUVs / RZRs / SxSs do not work like other types of vehicles. The differences they are referring to include how the vehicle’s seat belts work under diverse operating conditions, which dramatically effects how well the devices work or fail to work in ways that can comprise owner / operator and passenger safety.
Think just for one moment what would happen to you and your side-by-side if you were travelling down a two-track road at a reasonable speed and you came upon a hidden water rut crossing the road that was created by a cloud burst that emerged 40 miles away. As your UTV vehicle buries itself into the far cut bank of the water rut, you and any passengers inside of the side-by-side vehicle are thrust forward when the front of the UTV comes to a sudden stop.
The seat belt safety device that did not fully retract (see the video below) and tighten across your body now allows your body to move within the SxS’s roll cage to the point that some parts of your body contact the inside of the cage. Most likely, this will cause you to sustain some type of injury before you’re partially ejected from the UTV. All of this means that you’ll be forced outside of the protective roll cage into the dirt and rock that make up the far bank of the water rut. Unfortunately, this could lead to your body being crushed between the ground and the outer parts of the side-by-side.
The bottom line is that when a seat belt fails to function as it was designed to do, any passengers also face a significant risk of injury because the unaware operator is driving as if the safety equipment is working correctly and assumes everyone involved is protected. When this is not true, the results can be disastrous. Unfortunately, tip overs and rollovers are not uncommon. If you are considering being a customer of a guided recreational tour, I encourage you to ask questions to determine how well you will be trained and how well the facility’s equipment is maintained.
When I conduct UTV Safety Training Classes, I always remind all participants that wearing a properly maintained seat belt can help them remain within the side-by-side. I stress that the side-by-side’s doors and handholds are not a substitute for using a seat belt. If you are reading this as an operator of a RUV (recreational utility vehicle), please seriously consider taking advantage of safety training opportunities.
Discover what you don’t know that you don’t know. A damaged or inadequately maintained restraint system may not properly protect you or any passengers. The results could possibly include substantial injuries or even death in a crash and also your liability regarding injured passengers.
If you are an attorney with a case involving a recreational off-road vehicle, an off-highway vehicle used for work purposes, or a recreational tour using a UTV, I can definitely help you discover hidden contributors to the incidents that challenge you. When you work with me, you have the advantage of working with an Expert Witness who has conducted OHV Safety Training for decades for U.S. Special Forces personnel of all military branches and a wide variety of U.S. government agencies (from the U.S. Forest Service to the Federal Aviation Administration and USDA). I’ve also provided trainings for corporations as diverse as T-Mobile, Kinder Morgan Natural Gas, mining companies and a ski resort, to name a few.
Request my CV and letters of recommendation written by other attorneys. You’ll note statements in other attorney’s testimonials about how my experience, expertise and creative thinking abilities helped them settle or win their cases. I can assist you with standard of care issues, help you discern the strength of your case, decipher applicability of Consumer Product Safety standards and evaluations and much more.
NOTE: This article is not intended to be all-inclusive, It is designed to provide a foundation for the reader to learn from.
Bill Uhl is a Safety Trainer and Court-Qualified Expert Witness for cases involving all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), utility vehicles (UTVs / side by sides / ROVs / SxS / RUV / RZR), snowmobiles, motorcycle dirt bikes, dual sport bikes and off-road bicycle trails. Uhl has completed over 80 cases while serving as an Expert Witness for both plaintiff and defense attorneys, providing site visits, depositions and trial testimony. Click here for more information about Mr. Uhl.
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