Lead ban weighs on bike, ATV industry

WASHINGTON -- When members of Congress wanted to stop young children from ingesting lead from toys and jewelry, they passed a sweeping law in 2008 that went further than many intended: They also banned the sale of motorbikes and all-terrain vehicles if they're used by children and contain too much of the toxic metal.

After a series of delays, the law is set to take effect Dec. 31, which is causing much consternation in the industry.

"It seems kind of radical, I guess, to me," said Curtis Bleile, 39, owner of Fastrax Motorsports in Puyallup, which sells parts and accessories for ATVs and motorbikes.

Responding to a slew of similar concerns, a bipartisan coalition of 43 members of Congress is out to pass bills in the House and Senate that would permanently exclude youth-model motorbikes and ATVs from the lead ban.

In a letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency assigned to enforce the ban, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and 10 other House members said the exemption is needed because Congress never intended to include motorcycles and ATVs in the new law.

The law passed by Congress bans the making, importing or selling of "any" product intended for children 12 and under that contains more lead than allowed under the federal government's new standards. The CPSC said it had no choice but to include youth-model motorcycles and ATVs because of the way the law was worded.

That has prompted a flood of complaints to the CPSC and to members of Congress. Hastings and Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., two of the co-sponsors, signed onto the bill after each received more than 100 constituent complaints.

The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., is called the Kids Just Want to Ride Act. Rehberg said it's critical that Congress "put to rest any confusion once and for all."

Uncertainty about the new law already is affecting sales.

Sales of motorbikes and ATVs are down nearly 40 percent since 2008, said owner Vicki Gray of South Bound Honda in Lakewood, and South Sound Honda in Olympia. She attributed the drop in sales to the national recession and the new lead ban.

"A broad stroke of the pen affects all of us so hugely," Gray said. "And they don't do very good research before they do these things. ... It's silly, it's absolutely silly. A child is going to eat their motorcycle? You know, come on. It has broad effects, and they have no idea."

Jim Boltz, president of the Washington State Motorsports Dealers Association, said sales of youth-model motorbikes and ATVs virtually stopped in 2008 when the law was passed. And with the delay in its implementation, he said, the uncertainty lingers.

"It's a real negative situation that probably never should have happened," he said. "We have enough uncertainty as it is, just with the economy, without this kind of stuff."

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, called the new restrictions "overzealous" and said they "interfere with a way of life enjoyed by not just Montanans, but outdoor enthusiasts across America."

"While the goal is admirable, it is important to inject a little common sense into the process," said Tester, the sponsor of the Senate bill to exempt ATVs and motorbikes from the lead ban. "I want our kids and grandkids to be safe and protected from harmful toys, but we all know that most kids who are past the teething stage do not chew on their toys."

The lead ban had been set to take effect May 1, but the CPSC voted 4-1 on Feb. 1 to delay implementation until year's end.

Robert Adler, the only dissenting commissioner, said that almost three years after the law was passed "consumers still do not have the assurance that the children's products they buy have been reasonably tested." In addition, he said, it is not the commission's job to delay.

"I have heard numerous anguished accounts from ... companies about the extreme challenge of meeting these costs. ... If change is to come, Congress is the proper party to approach," Adler said.

But industry officials are relieved.

Ed Moreland, senior vice president with the American Motorcyclist Association, said the delay "affords riders much-needed breathing room" and will give Congress adequate time to change the law.

Under the new law, which was signed by President George W. Bush, manufacturers would have to certify that their products comply with the new lead standards.

Industry officials say that ATVs and motorbikes can contain lead in their battery terminals, tire valve stems, brake and clutch levers, throttle controls, engine housings and elsewhere.

"Who knows?" Bleile asked. "With all the parts that we deal with, there's gobs and gobs of cast parts, and lots of bearings and all these things involved, and I really honestly don't know how much lead is contained in those. ... There's so many vehicles out there that rely on that material in some of their components for us to maintain them and keep them running."

Bleile, who took his complaint to Smith's office, said he fears the new law will cut into his sales, too. He said that could be fairly devastating, at least in the short term. And he said he doesn't understand why his industry has been targeted by Congress.

"If the safety of children and all that is what's involved, it seems like you'd be maybe looking more toward toys," Bleile said. "It seemed kind of odd to me to try and involve this whole industry that's more really geared toward adults."

-- Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009; rhotakainen@mcclatchydc.com