Motorcyclists be warned: Many parts don’t meet safety standards

Rick Doyle stands next to his 2005 Venom Pro Street Big Bear Chopper, left, and 2004 Custom Chrome Nemesis in Hamersville, Ohio.
Ricky Carioti | The Washington Post
Rick Doyle stands next to his 2005 Venom Pro Street Big Bear Chopper, left, and 2004 Custom Chrome Nemesis in Hamersville, Ohio.
Posted May 27, 2012, at 11:50 a.m.

HAMERSVILLE, Ohio — The first dollar Rick Doyle ever earned as a $3 million-a-year dealer of aftermarket motorcycle parts is tacked to the wall of a dusty barn in rural Ohio, where two custom-built bikes have been pushed to the corner, forgotten. There is nothing here now except a 10-year-old tractor. The biker calendar above the desk still reads February 2006.

That’s about when Doyle made an unsettling discovery about an industry that for decades catered to motorcyclists who pride themselves on customizing bikes with unique features and high-powered parts.

Some of the products that Doyle had sold by the thousands — from undersized mirrors and lights to high-performance carburetors — appeared to violate federal standards meant to keep the roads safe and the air clear of excessive emissions. Other parts that showed signs of being dangerous weren’t covered by any standard at all. Doyle started researching the fine print of federal law after a series of aftermarket parts broke while he was customizing bikes. He was also engaged in a dispute over shipping and billing with one of his biggest parts suppliers.

“I felt like my chest had a piano on it when I realized the number of products I had sold, as well as countless ignorant dealers,” said Doyle, whose business, known as the Hog Farm, is now shuttered. “But no one wanted to hear it. No one wanted to investigate it. The government was letting these companies sell anything they wanted.”

From the hard-core to the weekend enthusiast, motorcyclists for generations have customized bikes by replacing manufacturer’s parts with high-performance exhausts, larger carburetors and sleeker mirrors, lights and turn signals. The practice has vaulted into the forefront of pop culture with celebrities like Jesse James and reality shows such as “American Chopper.”

But many aftermarket parts sold in plain sight online and in catalogues fail to comply with federal safety standards or the Clean Air Act, according to safety and environmental experts contacted by The Washington Post. Other parts not covered by standards are widely considered dangerous, such as passenger seats stuck to motorcycles with suction cups.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Environmental Protection Agency regulate the industry but struggle with limited budgets and resistance from some parts of the motorcycle industry. The laws themselves can be confusing, with nuances that make oversight difficult.

Parts installed on bikes used solely for competition, for example, are exempted from Clean Air Act standards. Parts that fail to comply with federal safety standards, such as undersized mirrors and lights, could be used legally to supplement standard equipment.

“I could probably go online and look at a catalogue and buy a variety of things that may put my motorcycle out of compliance,” said Peter terHorst, spokesman for the American Motorcyclist Association. “The question in my mind is: Does the requirement apply to the manufacturer or to the operator of the vehicle? It’s a slippery slope.”

Many motorcyclists add that individual riders must be allowed to make their own decisions, regardless of what the standards say. In the biker culture, freedom reigns, with many riders bucking interference from Washington.

While some riders advocate helmet use, protective gear and sound testing, others continue to resist mandatory helmet laws and noise ordinances, saying loud pipes on exhaust systems give fair warning to drivers and pedestrians.

The industry over all has political muscle, with motorcycle associations spending roughly $2 million on lobbying in 2010 and 2011, including support of a 14-year-old law banning NHTSA from initiating discussions with lawmakers about helmet use and other issues.

“People don’t want to be told what to do with their bikes,” said California motorcyclist Michael Reese. “Does society really care if a guy has loud or modified pipes?”

But air-quality experts cite an environmental toll when bikers tamper with certified engines, fuel and exhaust systems by substituting aftermarket parts, such as air filters, ignitions and pipes. The average manufactured motorcycle produces 14 times the smog-forming emissions as the average car, California’s air quality experts have found.

“These [aftermarket] parts create smog and particle pollution,” said Paul G. Billings, vice president of national policy and advocacy for the American Lung Association. “It’s willful violation of the law. We need to go after the manufacturers and retailers.”

On the safety side, fatalities among motorcyclists climbed steadily between 2000 and 2008 even as deaths among occupants of passenger vehicles dropped. Motorcycle deaths declined in 2009 but rose again in 2010. Motorcyclists are 25 times more likely than passenger car occupants to die in a crash and five times more likely to be injured, according to NHTSA.

No one knows whether non-compliant or potentially dangerous parts have contributed to the problems on the roads. Research by the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that motorcycles with high-performance capabilities can encourage riders to speed and engage in risky behavior.

NHTSA and federal safety experts say that equipment failure has not caused a large number of crashes, but the federal government has not conducted a comprehensive study of the causes of motorcycle crashes since 1981. That study found that modified bikes were overrepresented in crashes.

“NHTSA tends to focus on things where the most deaths occur. . . . They want to save the most lives they can with the dollars they have,” said Joan Claybrook, NHTSA administrator from 1977 to 1981. “On the other hand, motorcycle deaths have been going up when other deaths have been going down. That would suggest that maybe there’s something more here.”

Many of the products sold in Doyle’s shop had come from California-based Custom Chrome, which billed itself as one of the largest suppliers of aftermarket motorcycle parts for Harley-Davidson and other American-made bikes, supplying thousands of products to dealers in North America, Europe and Asia.

Founded by four friends in San Jose in the 1970s, the company quickly became known as a pioneer of unique designs and high-powered parts. The company’s annual report in 1997 touted 3,300 new products, many brought in from overseas.

Custom Chrome, which now operates under new ownership, did not return calls seeking comment. Two former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they no longer represent the company, said the firm took safety seriously and that Custom Chrome and other aftermarket companies have been modifying their product lines, posting disclaimers about non-compliant parts in catalogues, and scrambling to comply with often-confusing or conflicting federal and state standards.

One of the key products sold by Custom Chrome and other aftermarket companies was a bike-in-a-box kit filled with hundreds of loose parts for riders to assemble in their own garages.

The kits were so popular that one motorcycle industry executive referred to them as “mainline heroin.” At less than the cost of a Harley, the bike kits trumpeted an in-your-face machismo. One Custom Chrome advertisement declared, “Find yourself ruling the streets with this hungry giant! The Goliath is sure to be noticed everywhere it goes . . . the Goliath is a monster on wheels.”

Jenn Brenning, a former Custom Chrome manager who supervised the kit bike program, said fear of regulation was not an initial concern.

“We never heard much from the government,” she said. “There could have been regulations, but they were never enforced. We weren’t on anybody’s radar.”

Federal regulators have focused heavily on the nation’s 135 million cars, cracking down on issues such as speeding, seat belt use and drunken driving. The payoff has been great: Injuries and deaths for automobiles are at historic lows.

“We do try and make sure that we’re focusing our resources and addressing major crashes and fatalities and injury risk,” said Ron Medford, NHTSA’s deputy administrator.

Medford, however, said that NHTSA in 2000 endorsed a series of safety recommendations for the nation’s 8 million motorcycles. Developed by a national panel of experts, the recommendations included studying the role of modifications in motorcycle crashes and working with aftermarket vendors to make safety a priority.

NHTSA can pursue civil penalties against aftermarket parts companies that sell non-compliant products. The agency can also launch investigations and require that manufacturers conduct recalls for products found to be defective or unsafe, including those that aren’t covered by federal standards, such as the suction cup passenger seats.

Safety experts say that may not be enough.

“There are people out there selling parts that NHTSA doesn’t even know about,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety. “What you have is self-policing. Whether companies comply with the regulations is basically voluntary on their part because NHTSA doesn’t have the resources to oversee them.”

Like NHTSA, the EPA can fine companies that sell non-compliant parts. The agency in 2007 announced a first-of-its-kind settlement requiring an Illinois manufacturer to stop selling aftermarket devices for cars that released excessive emissions.

But the agency has never fined a manufacturer or distributor of aftermarket motorcycle parts.

EPA officials said that any aftermarket part that alters the air-fuel ratio in an engine likely will affect emissions. The agency declined to comment on specific parts advertised online and in catalogues, saying it needs test data to determine emission increases.

“EPA is aware that some manufacturers and suppliers may be selling aftermarket motorcycle parts that could increase air pollution,” the agency said in a written statement. “EPA takes this issue seriously and will investigate and take action as appropriate to address potential threats to air quality.”

Doyle got involved in the industry at 17 when he bought a classic orange and black Harley. A certified addiction therapist, he turned his passion into a business in 1995 when he bought his first bike shop from a man named Rat, who had bought it from a man named Rooster. Doyle opened the Hog Farm in 2002, drawing millions of dollars in sales.

In 2005, Doyle started worrying about the parts he was selling, which came from 54 different distributors and hundreds of manufacturers, including Custom Chrome.

In one email to Custom Chrome that year, he complained of melted tail lights: “These things go up in smoke, three in a row now.” In a second email, he said clutches were sticking and that rear axles were too short. “We have serious safety concerns,” Doyle wrote. “We have had at least one customer who had his axle nut come off and (the) axle go loose on him . . . fortunately, not while he was moving.”

Doyle’s mechanic, Danny Highfield, said he discovered frames with bad welds and improperly sized parts and belts. “It was like somebody was just throwing this stuff into boxes and shipping it,” Highfield later said in an interview.

About that time, lawsuits were mounting.

Daniel and Denise Lewis were thrown from their bike while rounding a curve on the back roads of Indiana. Daniel Lewis, a factory worker, longtime rider and father of two, was pronounced dead on the scene.

“The only thing I remember is that we were riding, and then Dan wasn’t on the bike in front of me anymore,” Denise Lewis said.

The family’s insurance company hired an engineer, who reported that the inner tube in the tire had ruptured. Custom Chrome distributed the part, which was manufactured by a company in Taiwan. The Lewis family sued Custom Chrome’s parent company, as well as the manufacturer.

In its response to the complaint, Custom Chrome’s parent company denied the part was defective, saying it complied with federal, state and industry standards. The case is pending.

The bike kits also generated complaints. In Texas, biker Jeff Byram broke more than 20 bones when he was thrown from his motorcycle, built from a kit, along a two-lane country road. Byram and his attorney hired an engineer, who said a weld attaching the front fork to the frame had failed. “Superglue would have held it better,” said Byram, a father of four.

The case was settled by Custom Chrome’s insurance company, said Byram’s attorney, William Smith.

In 2006, Custom Chrome was taken over by an affiliate of powerhouse private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management. The Cerberus affiliate four years earlier had loaned $80 million to Global Motorsport Group, Custom Chrome’s parent company. When Global defaulted on the loan, ownership of the company transferred to the Cerberus affiliate, which quickly learned about the problem parts.

At the time, air quality officials in California were raising questions about the effect of tampered motorcycles and state safety inspectors were denying titles to bikes built from kits. Custom Chrome officials were also growing worried.

“There was lots of liability,” said Brenning, the former Custom Chrome manager. “The bike kits weren’t up to code. If they weren’t up to NHTSA code and they weren’t up to EPA standards, we could have gotten thousands and thousands of dollars in fines.”

Custom Chrome stopped distributing the bike kits.

“After Cerberus assumed ownership of the business and subsequently uncovered potential compliance problems, they quickly decided to discontinue selling parts with any potential problems,” said Scott Avila, who was brought in by Cerberus to restructure the company.

In January 2008, Custom Chrome’s parent company filed for bankruptcy, claiming $190 million in liabilities. Cerberus, which declined requests for comment, sold the assets of the company for $16 million, a steep loss.

A series of injured motorcyclists who had unsecured claims against Custom Chrome said more should have been done to hold the company to account.

“Nobody should be able to sell parts like that and just keep doing what they’re doing,” said Byram, the injured biker from Texas. “I thought when somebody went into bankruptcy, they lost everything — like I did. It’s just not right.”

Doyle went out of business before the bankruptcy. He and his wife, Tanya, now live with their 7-year-old twins in a 70-foot trailer on family land next to the barn. For years, they have been writing letters to regulators and members of Congress, urging an investigation.

NHTSA wrote to Custom Chrome in 2007, asking the company to describe measures taken to ensure its bike kits complied with safety standards. The company responded in a letter that it no longer produced the kits; NHTSA did not follow up because it considered the issue moot.

The Doyles say they worry that millions of problem parts are still on the roads.

“Imagine how we feel knowing we sold these dangerous parts to people?” said Tanya, a former Army veterinary technician. “We tried to make it right, to make sure people were safe. But we can’t make people safe.”

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