WASHINGTON -- Advocacy groups say the government should ban children from riding all-terrain vehicles and force other riders to obey new safety standards, contending a surge in deaths and injuries show the ATV industry has failed to protect and educate riders.
Representatives from consumer, children's and environmental groups cited statistics showing injuries to ATV riders under 16 have nearly doubled in the last eight years.
"Self-regulation by the ATV industry has led to larger and faster ATVs and more children being killed and injured," said Rachel Weintraub, assistant general counsel to the Consumer Federation of America.
Children, she said, are being disproportionately hurt and killed by ATVs. According to government statistics, those under 16 represent about 14 percent of ATV riders but suffer 37 percent of ATV-related injuries and 38 percent of ATV-related deaths.
Grown-ups, not the government, bear responsibility for keeping their kids safe and riding only on child-sized machines, say ATV proponents.
"Unfortunately, some people ride these things stupidly," said Bill Ford, owner of a West Virginia company that offers ATV tours. He recalls seeing a mother and two kids riding an ATV down a highway without helmets. "There's a lot we should be doing with education."
Varied uses for ATVs
ATVs are motorized machines that can traverse off-road terrain. While popular for recreation, they are also used extensively by farmers, police and others who find them less expensive than trucks and tractors and easier to maneuver in regions with few roads.
Rules for operating the vehicles vary widely by state. Some have no restrictions, while others require licenses for owners and operators and bar children under 16 from riding them.
The ATV industry has opposed some efforts to restrict the vehicles' use, saying it will hurt those who depend on ATVs for their livelihood and unfairly penalize safe operators.
In West Virginia for example, it's still legal to drive an ATV on a highway without a helmet. Critics have tried and failed for years to inspire the state legislature to pass new rules governing ATV use. The efforts have been blocked in part by farmers and coal industry workers, who say they need to use the vehicles to do their jobs.
"ATVs have been a way of life for certain parts of West Virginia for some time. And from a tourism perspective, it's doing wonders for the economy," said Ford, an attorney and owner of Charles Town-based Mountain Thunder.
In response to a rising fatality rate, particularly among children, the government and the industry entered a court-approved consent decree in 1988 banning the manufacture of three-wheel ATVs. It also ordered ATV distributors to use their "best efforts" to assure that dealers do not sell adult-size ATVs to children under 16.
The advocacy groups said rising death and injury rates indicate the voluntary guidelines are not working.
Annual injuries for four-wheel ATVs have increased more than 200 percent -- from about 36,000 in 1993 to about 100,000 in 2001, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Annual injuries from all ATVs -- some three-wheel vehicles made before the ban took effect still are in use -- more than doubled during that period, from about 50,000 to about 111,700, the commission said.
And ATV injuries to children under 16 increased from about 17,000 in 1993 to about 34,800 in 2001.
The Consumer Federation of America, the Bluewater Network, the National Trails and Waters Coalition and various emergency medical professionals say they want Congress and federal agencies to bar children under 16 from riding ATVs. The coalition also wants every state to adopt legislation to license, train and require safety rules for ATV owners and operators.
Separately Tuesday, Arctic Cat Inc. of Thief River Falls, Minn., recalled about 45,000 all-terrain vehicles because a mechanical problem can cause them to overturn, resulting in injuries.