Is Honda really the 'safety' company?

Marketing dirt-bikes to kids undercuts Honda's goody-goody image, says Fortune Alex Taylor.

By Alex Taylor III, Fortune senior editor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- According to last Friday's New York Times, Honda is aiming to be known as the safety company. Honda, says the Times,"is promoting safety as an essential part of its public image" and "wants to join Volvo as an automaker best known for safety."

If cars alone are the criteria, Honda (Charts) certainly qualifies. It loads up its vehicles with airbags and antilock brakes, and wins high marks from government and independent rating agencies for crash protection.

But Honda doesn't make just cars. It also produces lawn mowers, outboard motors, jet skis, and on-road and off-road motorcycles.

Sales of off-road motorcycles - more popularly known as dirt bikes or trail bikes - are soaring, more than doubling since 1999 to 318,000 in 2005. Among the major players, only Honda is a big factor in autos. The others - Kawasaki, Yamaha and Suzuki - are primarily motorcycle manufacturers.

Honda makes eight dirt-bike models ranging in size from 50 cc to 450 and explicitly markets them to children. It figures that "the youngest riders in the family, those about 6 years old" are just the right age to cut their teeth on a 50 cc bike. Their feet can touch the ground when they are seated and they are coordinated enough to operate the automatic clutch. Riders "a year or two older" are deemed ideal customers for the 70 cc bike. The 80 cc version "is designed specifically for young learners" and "offers the next logical step up." And so on.

Put a child or young teen on a motorbike and guess what happens? The same thing that is always happening to children and teenagers: They have accidents. Thousands of them. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which collects data on emergency room visits by off-road bikers, counted 67,609 in 2005. Nearly half of the visits - 27,525 - were by children 16 years and younger. These were more than bumps and bruises. More than one-third of the cases involve fractures and internal injuries.

Deaths are rare but they can occur. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 13 off-road motorcycle riders below the age of 20 died in off-road accidents in 2003. Is it any wonder that the CDC says "Motorcycle crashes are a substantial public health problem for children and teens."

What's Honda doing about this? It publishes brochures on safe riding, urges bikers to take lessons, and encourages the wearing of protective gear, including helmets, goggles, boots, and elbow and knee pads. How effective all this is unclear. Off-road riders are not licensed so there is no requirement that they comply. And given the number of helmetless adult riders seen in non-helmet states like Connecticut, it isn't hard to imagine young off-roaders following their example by going helmetless too.

Honda positions dirt-bikes as a fun-for-the-whole-family sport. It pictures young bikers riding behind their parents in neat lines at slow speeds. But having Mom and Dad along for the ride gets old after awhile, and parents aren't always available when Junior wants to saddle up. Besides, they would probably frown on efforts to imitate the motocross racers on TV by flying off of jumps and rounding corners with one foot skidding on the dirt.

So what's going to keep young motorbike riders out of the ER? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents not allow children to ride motorcycles until they reach the age of 16 and that all riders wear helmets. That would be a start. A more modest measure would be for Honda and other manufacturers to stop marketing motorcycles for children by limiting the size of the bikes they sell to over 250 cc.

There is a precedent for manufacturers to exercise restraint. In 1987 Honda and other makers reached a consent decree with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to stop selling little three-wheel all-terrain vehicles known as ATVs, which are even more dangerous than dirt bikes. If Honda really wants to be known as the safety company, it should do something like that with its kiddie motorcycles too.


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