Safety roundup: New cautions on headlights, off-road vehicles, and groceries and food recalls

Consumers need to stay informed and to protect their own interests, especially because big businesses — whether they’re car makers, grocers, or manufacturers of off-road vehicles — may put their own interests ahead of public safety.

With car makers, a leading highway safety group has spotlighted how only a select few of these global enterprises have reckoned with an unexpected consequence of high-tech, energy saving advances: Just six of the 2020 passenger vehicles deemed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) offer top-rated headlights as standard equipment. This is not just an issue for gear heads but is an important safety consideration affecting not only motorists’ capacity to navigate roads well but also to protect vulnerable pedestrians who are becoming traffic victims in rising numbers.

Grocers, meantime, have gotten called out by a notably public interest group for their lax approach in informing their customers about tainted food and recalls of risky products.

As for those off-road vehicles — notorious already for their hazards — a journalistic watchdog site has found that one maker stands out for “the dubious distinction” of leading in official recalls and raising safety advocates’ concerns about how it deals with fire problems.

High- and low-beams about headlight safety

carheadlights-300x200Road deaths overall, which rose in concerning ways in recent years, have flattened out now at a still unacceptably high level of 37,000 fatalities a year. But experts have expressed growing concern that the pedestrian toll has spiked, with 6,227 killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2018, the highest level since 1990, the Governors Highway Safety Association has reported.

This has led safety advocates and auto makers to look for ways to lessen this carnage, with the IIHS highlighting the role of drivers’ poor visibility, particularly between dawn and dusk when half of traffic fatalities occur. The IIHS — independent and nonprofit, though its work is supported by an industry affected by car wrecks’ payouts and lawsuits — turned its attention in 2016 to problems associated with headlights that are supposed to illuminate the road, potentially reducing harms to drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

The group, since 2016, has tested and rated headlights, finding too many of them don’t perform well enough:

“The low beams of many headlight systems with poor [IIHS] ratings don’t provide enough light for a driver going 55 mph on a straight road to stop in time after spotting an obstacle in his or her lane. They provide even less illumination on the left side of a straight road and when driving on a curve. Glare is another common problem. Properly aimed headlights can illuminate the road ahead without getting in other drivers’ eyes. It’s also possible to have headlights that provide poor visibility and also cause excessive glare.”

Auto makers have responded, sort of, with improved halogen lights, then with LEDs. The high-tech LEDs cost more but last longer. They are more efficient, providing more light for less energy.

But critics continue to note, with evidence, that makers haven’t figured well how to make LEDs shine as headlights, particularly because these new sources too often don’t project a beam as powerfully and well as halogens. Even in the two dozen or so vehicles the IIHS praised for their overall safety, the group found that only a handful had headlights that were more than just “acceptable,” and many of these used LEDs.

If vehicle makers want to saddle motorists with a more expensive headlight, they need to improve designs and product choices, using specialized LEDs that can throw light in a focused fashion and to work this source better into car and truck bodies, perhaps even adopting mountings that let the lights swivel, move, and follow the road, experts say.

Caveat emptor, buyers, spending time on which headlights come with that next vehicle may not only need to save money but also lives, protecting others and you from the nightmare of a costly wreck.

Why don’t grocers do more to inform public about food safety?

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that food-borne illnesses sicken 48 million Americans and kill more than 3,000 each year. Given that their core business is food and they are for the public a frequent and crucial point in the nutritional supply chain, why don’t grocers do much, more to inform the public about tainted and recalled products?

foodrecallgradegrocery-300x127They should, and too few do, according to the U.S. Public Interest Group, a nonprofit, independent, national consumer advocacy organization. The group thumped 22 out of 26 grocery chains, both for declining to answer questions about their practices and for failing to warn customers about food recalls through clear policies, direct notification, and in-store posters.

PIRG had praise for Target and Kroger and its two subsidiaries Smith’s and Harris Teeter, finding they used social media, emails, and in-store methods to inform customers about problem products.

The other stores didn’t, and the criticized enterprises include big names, including: Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Walmart, Winn Dixie, Vons, Publix, Wegmans, and Aldi. They were, PIRG reported, part of the “84% of grocery store chains [that] failed to provide any public description of their process for notifying customers about recalls. This critical failure leaves consumers to seek out this information and risk inconsistent implementation by individual stores.”

Although government regulators, notably the federal Food and Drug Administration, bears big responsibility in ordering official recalls and informing the public about tainted and risky products, some of these may stay on shelves longer than is optimal for a variety of reasons. This is even more reason for grocers to step up to safeguard their customers, PIRG argued.

“Grocery stores are in a unique position to keep shoppers safe by effectively informing shoppers about food recalled due to a variety of hazards, filling gaps in the nation’s recall system. Through loyalty programs and purchase histories, stores have unique information about consumers that should allow them to provide targeted alerts to customers about recalled products. Stores can see sales of products drop after recalls and may receive some blame for failing to notify consumers. But, proactively warning customers they may have purchased recalled food is more than a critical mechanism to protect public health — it could help inoculate the grocery store from consumer outrage. Until customers can easily find information on recall notification programs many people will remain in the dark, putting their health at risk.”

Grocers not only didn’t respond to PIRG’s research queries, they also did not address the group’s findings. An industry group, however, criticized the work and countered that grocers should not be forced to meet idealized safety standards, particularly in informing customers. The trade group also pointed out that regulators, especially, have many more points to deal with problem food before it reaches groceries — an end point in the nation’s supply chain.

Still, it’s also worth mentioning that the FDA has drawn fire from federal watchdogs recently for failing to act with the required urgency and vigor in getting companies to clear their shelves of contaminated and potentially risky foods.

Maybe it’s also worth mentioning: Sure, the grocery business has become ferocious these days, especially with the rising presence in it of big enterprises like Target, Walmart, and Amazon. But along with cost considerations, are quality, safety, and public concern competitive advantages in this industry anymore?

Off-road vehicle company compiles dubious record

polaris-300x143Although their popularity persists, off-road vehicles not only pose high enough risks but have caused enough harms that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has dedicated online sites to their continuing oversight.

As the agency has reported:

“CPSC staff reviewed 329 reports of ROV-related fatality and injury incidents that occurred between January 2003 and September 2010. These reports included 169 fatalities and 299 injuries. A significant hazard pattern associated with the ROV-related incidents involved a quarter turn lateral rollover of the vehicle, full or partial ejection of the occupant, and subsequent crushing of the occupant’s head or body by the vehicle.”

Is it any surprise that consumer safety advocates also keep a close eye on makers of these products? And several — including Fair Warning, the Consumer Federation of America, and the private consultants at Safety Research and Strategies (SRS) — just have ripped anew a major maker of these recreational products.

As Fair Warning reported, the Polaris company has racked up the “dubious distinction” of being No. 1 in official recalls of its products in its industry. The journalists cite the work of the Consumer Federation, which found that Polaris, since 2010, has been subject to 110 recalls for various defects in its vehicles. Authorities also imposed “35 official recalls, by far the most of any company, along with five other actions described as stop sale/stop ride notices.”

The company has defended itself, arguing its products meet federal regulations and that it cooperates fully with recalls and other oversight actions to best serve its customers.

But, as has occurred with other cases involving the CPSC, external experts are raising questions about the vigor with which the agency and its top officials act in the public versus private interests, notably including those of the off-road vehicle industry. Fair Warning, again, points to the digging of the SRS consultants on Polaris’ problems with fires breaking out on its vehicles:

“Polaris had no official recalls involving fire hazards in 2019, a departure from the recent past. From 2016 through 2018, Polaris had to recall hundreds of thousands of vehicles due to fires linked to at least four deaths and scores of burn injuries. In 2018, the Medina, Minnesota-based company agreed to pay a record $27.25 million fine for failing to promptly notify the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission about fire hazards. But safety advocates argue that Polaris actually initiated multiple fire-related recalls last year — but just called them by a different name.”

As the SRS consultants have posted on their site:

“[T]here are troubling signs that Polaris ROV fires are still being brushed aside by the CPSC as the company quietly released four stop-sale/stop-ride notices and safety bulletins for additional fire-related issues affecting some 2018-2020 models of the RZR Turbo and the Ranger XP 1000. According to Polaris, there are four separate problems that are resulting in fires, including misrouted fuel lines (a concern that was also addressed in 2016 recall), drive belt failures causing fuel line damage, loose fuel rail mounting fasteners, and clutch inlet covers used in manufacturing that were not removed before sale. Polaris’ recent actions – which are not ‘recalls’ – can be found only on the company’s Product Safety Announcements website page and included in their safety recalls search. Consumers expecting to find these announcements on the CPSC website apparently should know better than to go to the federal safety agency with regulatory and enforcement authority for Recreational Off-Road Vehicles for information about product hazards so significant that they shouldn’t be used or sold because of fire concerns.”

Ouch.

In my practice, I see not only here are troubling signs that Polaris ROV fires are still being brushed aside by the CPSC as the company quietly released four stop-sale/stop-ride notices and safety bulletins for additional fire-related issues affecting some 2018-2020 models of the RZR Turbo and the Ranger XP 1000. According to Polaris, there are four separate problems that are resulting in fires, including misrouted fuel lines (a concern that was also addressed in 2016 recall), drive belt failures causing fuel line damage, loose fuel rail mounting fasteners, and clutch inlet covers used in manufacturing that were not removed before sale. Polaris’ recent actions – which are not the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damages that can be inflicted on them by car, truck, and motorcycle wrecks, as well as by defective and dangerous products. Americans may be suffering through a modern gilded age, in which wealthy corporations and plutocrats rake in ever-increasing riches while acting with impunity.

We can and should demand more of big businesses, including that they make the safest cars possible, provide the cleanest and most nutritious foods, and don’t injure or kill us and our young people while riding their off-road recreational vehicles. The FDA, CPSC, and other agencies have many good folks — and their leaders need to force these watchdogs and the industries they oversee to do markedly better by taxpayers and with their needs. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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