Children and ATV-Related Accidents

by : John Bisnar

There is an ATV safety crisis in America today, and it poses a great threat to the health and well being of our nation’s children. All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) were first made available in the United States in the early 1970’s, and have become increasingly popular ever since. At first glance, ATVs may seem harmless; however the number of ATV-related injuries and deaths continues to rise with their popularity. Over 136,000 Americans suffer ATV-related injuries and deaths ever year and over one-third of the victims are children under 16 years of age. Despite the increasing epidemic, ATV manufacturers continue to market bigger, faster, and more dangerous ATVs for children.

ATVs have been available in the United States for approximately 40 years. They are three- or four- wheel motorized machines specifically designed for off-road travel. ATVs are intended for single occupant use and are characterized as an open chassis or frame, which travels on large, low-pressure tires, and uses handlebars for steering. Three-wheel machines have not been manufactured since 1988, however many still remain in use. ATV engines range from 49cc to 950cc and can travel at speeds well above 70 miles per hour.

By the mid-1980’s, ATV manufacturers were selling as many as 600,000 three- and four-wheel ATVs every year in the United States. As ATV sales continued to rise, dramatic increases in ATV accidents () followed. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) responded to the safety crisis by negotiating a Consent Decree with ATV manufacturers in which they agreed, among other things, to five major elements ():

• ATV manufacturers agreed to halt production of three-wheel ATVs.
• ATV manufacturers would offer safety training to all new ATV owners.
• ATV manufacturers would recommend adult-sized ATVs only for those ages 16 and older.
• ATV manufacturers would label all ATVs with warnings, instructing purchasers that children should not ride adult-size ATVs.
• ATV manufacturers would recommend ATV engine sizes according to age: ATVs with an engine greater than 70cc should be used only by children 12 and older, and ATVs with an engine greater than 90cc should be used only by those 16 and older.

The Consent Decree only covered a ten-year period and expired on April 28, 1988. Following the expiration of the Consent Decree, ATV manufacturers agreed to continue most of its elements through voluntary action plans. These agreements embodied many important safety elements, however, unlike the Consent Decree; the voluntary safety plans are not enforceable by the CPSC.

In the late 1980’s the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) began to initiate a series of ATV-related injury and death studies intended for public release. The first report, titled “All-Terrain Vehicle Exposure, Injury, Death, and Risk Studies," was released in April of 1988. Some major findings in the 1988 study included ():

• Approximately 95 percent of children, between the ages of 12 and 15 years of age, injured in ATV-related accidents were operating adult-size ATVs.
• Approximately 65 percent of children, less than 11 years of age, injured in ATV-related accidents were operating adult-size ATVs.
• Children less than 16 years of age accounted for nearly 50 percent of all ATV-related injuries.

ATV injuries () and deaths have continued to increase since the CPSC’s first studies on ATV-related accidents in the 1980’s. According to the CPSC’s latest estimates, there have been reports of 7,188 deaths and an estimated 1,763,800 emergency-room-treated injuries that have occurred between 1983 and 2005. Over 38 percent of the victims have been, and will continue to be, children under 16 years of age. The following represents the most currently ATV-related deaths and injuries involving children, according to the CPSC ().

• More than 40,000 children are seriously injured each year in ATV-related accidents.
• Between 1983 and 2005, at least 2,178 children under the age of 16 died from ATV-related accidents.
• Between 1983 and 2005, over 630,000 children under the age of 16 went to a hospital emergency room for ATV-related injuries.
• Over 42 percent of the children that die in ATV-related deaths are under 12 years of age.
• It is estimated that over 36 percent of the children that are injured in non-fatal ATV-related accidents are less than 12 years of age.

Despite the increasing ATV-related injuries and deaths, ATVs continue to get bigger, faster and more dangerous than ever. ATV manufacturers aggressively advertise ATVs based on power and speed, weighing up to 800 pounds and traveling at speeds well above 70 miles per hour. Regardless of warning labels and size restrictions, 90 percent of children involved in ATV-related accidents in 2005 were operating large, powerful, adult-sized ATVs.

According to the Wall Street Journal, ATV manufacturers are now pushing for a new category of bigger and faster ATVs aimed at image-conscious 14- and 15-year-olds. ATV manufacturers call this new category “transitional" ATVs, claiming they would reduce fatalities by encouraging children to ride ATV models more appropriate to their age. However, many consumer advocates claim “beefing up youth options" would undercut safety messages and put younger riders on bigger, more powerful machines ().

The occurrence of ATV-related injury and death to children has become so great that pediatricians, orthopedic surgeons, medical researchers, consumer advocates and other professionals have called for a ban on use of ATVs by children under the age of 16.

T.S. Park, M.D., the Shi Hue Huang Professor of Neurological Surgery at the School of Medicine and pediatric neurosurgeon-in-chief at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, contributed to a review published in the Journal of Neurosurgery claiming that ATV-related accidents are “leading to an increasing number of fatalities and devastating injuries with lifelong consequences for children and their parents." In the review, Park and his colleagues strongly recommend new legislation to reduce the increasing rates of serious injury and death from ATV-related accidents. The following are guidelines that Park and his colleagues believe would greatly reduce the number of injuries and deaths to children in ATV-related accidents ().

• Children younger than 16 years of age should be banned from riding ATVs.
• Mandatory helmet laws should be in order.
• Mandatory instruction and certification programs for all ATV owners and operators should be in order.
• ATVs should be prohibited for all public streets and highways.

Nearly 20 years after the ATV industry agreed to improve safety, ATV-related accidents continue to take an alarming toll on children. Every year hundreds of thousands of children are injured or killed in ATV-related accidents. Although increases of ATV-related injuries and deaths to children have consistently followed the increases in popularity, sales, size and power of ATVs, state legislatures have failed to enact proper legislation to ensure that safety follows as well. It is clear that ATVs pose a significant hazard to children and it is time for national safety standards to be implemented.