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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 4, 2009

More than 50 incidents with Yamaha Rhinos
Knox boy killed in off-road rollover

By Zach Simeone

KNOX — A Berne-Knox-Westerlo seventh-grade boy died last Thursday, after his new off-road vehicle rolled on top of him, police say.

The vehicle, a Yamaha Rhino, was deemed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to be unsafe without certain recommended repairs, but Yamaha representatives say the vehicle is safe if operated by a licensed driver.

James Wyatt Spencer, 13, of Knox, was riding his new 2009 Yamaha Rhino at his home on Bozenkill Road, about half-a-mile from the road, when it flipped over, according to a release from the Albany County Sheriff’s Department. He was riding with a 14-year-old friend, who was not injured. Neither boy was wearing a helmet or seat belt, police said.

Spencer’s parents had just given him the Rhino earlier that day.

The sheriff’s department got the call at 4:13 p.m. The boy was airlifted to Albany Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 5:10 p.m.

The cause of death was massive head trauma, said Chief Deputy Craig Apple of the sheriff’s department.

“We’ve had a few fatalities in the Hilltowns from ATVs, but they’re not too common,” Apple said, though the Rhino is technically a side-by-side vehicle, not an ATV. “But it comes down to supervision, and following the rules and regulations of the machine. Wear your helmet. Just because it’s a two-seater — bigger is not safer.”

Prior to the accident, the Spencers had trusted the Yamaha brand.

“I bought the Rhino because I’ve always bought Yamaha,” said the boy’s father, James Spencer. The family also owns a Yamaha Warrior ATV, which the boy had extensive experience with before riding the Rhino, said Spencer. The family bought the Rhino to help with farm work, he said.

“We bought the Rhino to do the mid-range work, to handle what the four-wheeler couldn’t handle, and what the tractor didn’t need to do,” Spencer said. “We definitely had no idea just how dangerous this machine was.”

Now, the Rhino is being held by the Sheriff’s Department, and is part of an ongoing investigation.

“There was a nationwide free repair offered by Yamaha, and that was supposedly performed before the purchase,” said Apple. “We’re holding the machine and awaiting a mechanic to make sure the work was done. At some point next week, a certified Yamaha mechanic will make sure the repairs were performed properly.”

On March 31, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announced a free repair program for the Rhino.

“CPSC staff has investigated more than 50 incidents involving these three Rhino models,” says a release on the CPSC website from the date of the announcement of the repair program. The three models it refers to are the Rhino 450, 660, and 700 models.

These incidents include “46 driver and passenger deaths involving the Rhino 450 and 660 models,” says the commission. “More than two-thirds of the cases involved rollovers and many involved unbelted occupants. Of the rollover-related deaths and hundreds of reported injuries, some of which were serious, many appear to involve turns at relatively low speeds and on level terrain.”

The repair program, according to the CPSC website, involves “the installation of a spacer on the rear wheels as well as the removal of the rear anti-sway bar to help reduce the chance of rollover and improve vehicle handling.”

Spencer said he was unaware of the Rhino’s history when he purchased the vehicle.

“I really didn’t know anything about any anti-sway bars,” Spencer said. “All I was told about at the dealership was the spacers. I wasn’t told anything about recalls, or deaths, or anything with these, just that they were putting the spacers on to make it more stable than it was.”

Representatives of Yamaha disagree with the assertion that the Rhino is an unsafe vehicle.

“More than 99 percent of our customers are using the vehicles without any sort of incident, so I disagree with the statement that there have been a lot of accidents out there,” said Van Holmes, public relations manager for Yamaha’s ATV and Side By Side Department.

“Yamaha stands behind the Rhino as a safe and reliable vehicle,” Holmes told The Enterprise this week. “What we really want to focus on here is the safety recommendations on the owner manual, and really continue to educate the public on the age recommendations — that you’re 16 and have a driver’s license, and you should be always wearing a helmet, and always wearing a seat belt.”

These recommendations can be found both in the owner’s manual and on the vehicle itself, Holmes said.

“Regarding this case, I would certainly offer that we are saddened any time anybody gets in an accident,” Holmes added, “but I need to emphasize the safe and responsible use of any off-road vehicle.”

In addition, Marketing Manager Steve Nessl said, Yamaha has a program that offers $100, to go toward the purchase of a helmet, to any customer who watches the included DVD at the dealership where he or she purchases the Rhino.

“It’s an instructional DVD that walks people through the safety recommendations on the vehicle,” Nessl said. “Every Rhino actually comes with the safety DVD already. We’re taking the opportunity with the helmet incentive to make sure people are watching it.”

The dealership where Spencer purchased the Rhino, Gable Motor Sports in Cobleskill, did not return phone calls to comment.

“The bottom line,” Chief Deputy Apple concluded, “is probably going to come down to this: The child was operating the machine a little too fast. This is a machine that is obviously pretty easily tipped over, so, I think it was a combination of a little too fast, no helmet and no seat belt. Unfortunately, there’s no easier way to say it.”

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