Officials express growing concern for children riding ATVs

There have been two recent ATV-related deaths in the area.


Published: Monday, January 10, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 10, 2005 at 12:02 a.m.

For millions of Americans, the adrenaline rush of racing across a dirt field at high speeds on an all-terrain vehicle is too much to resist.

And with the popularity of ATVs on the rise, the need for speed has translated into a multimillion-dollar industry and created a following among riders - some who consider racing the vehicles a sport.

But the desire for fun behind the wheel of an ATV has health professionals and law enforcement officials questioning just how safe ATVs really are.

Dr. Elizabeth Beierle, a pediatric surgeon at Shands at the University of Florida, said she has seen everything from liver lacerations and punctured lungs to major head injuries in patients who have been in ATV accidents. Beierle said she thinks that the vehicles are dangerous - especially for younger children who lack the cognitive abilities to make split-second decisions when riding them.

"I think it's a public safety concern," Beierle said. "You wouldn't let a child without a driver's license drive a car, so why would you put a child on an ATV?"

There have been two recent ATV-related deaths in the area. Joseph King, 31, of Live Oak died Dec. 22 when he hit a culvert and lost control of his ATV, crashing into a tree. Cody James Creech, 9, of Wellborn died of injuries sustained on New Year's Eve when he drove his ATV into the path of a semi-tractor truck on Suwannee County Road 137 near Live Oak and was ejected from his vehicle. Cody would have turned 10 on Jan. 20.

From 1982 to 2002, there were 5,239 ATV-related deaths in the United States, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. A review of the reported fatalities indicated that 1,706 victims, or 33 percent, were under age 16, and 723 were under 12, according to the commission.

Although there was a decrease in the most recent figures for ATV-related deaths - from 467 in 2001 to 357 in 2002, Beierle said she believes the vehicles should be outlawed - period.

"It's just a senseless loss of life and limb for no reason," Beierle said.

But despite the statistics, ATV enthusiasts and dealers say the vehicle is safe as long as riders follow manufacturers' safety guidelines.

Richard McGraw, general manager of Streits Motorsports in Gainesville, said that his company, which is required by Florida law to hold a license to sell ATVs, follows strict guidelines set by such manufacturers as Honda, Polaris, Suzuki and Yamaha, among others. McGraw noted that several of the manufacturers have safety education training available for riders and parents.

"If they're used properly, there's no problem with them," McGraw said of ATVs. "It comes down to supervision, and if they're used for what they're intended and kids are properly supervised, they're perfectly safe."

Originally released as three-wheel models, ATVs are now available only as four-wheelers. Manufacturers stopped making the three-wheel models in the late 1980s due to high rates of injury and roll-over tendencies.

Manufacturer guidelines state that children ages 6 to 12 should operate only those ATVs with engines less than 70 cubic centimeters and that children between 12 and 16 can operate ATVs with engines between 70cc and 90cc.

Currently, 27 states have a minimum age requirement for operation of an ATV. Of these, only Missouri, New Hampshire and Virginia require ATV operators to be 16 or older, according to the National SAFE Kids Campaign.

In 2003, 490 ATV crashes were reported in Florida, according to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Twenty-two people were killed and 440 were injured in those accidents.

McGraw blames a lack of parental supervision and judgment for such accidents.

"There are age restrictions in place and we abide by the rules, but we're not required to run background checks," McGraw said.

State law requires children under 16 to wear a helmet and eye protection when riding an ATV, but with no licensing system, regulation is mostly up to the industry.

As more people buy and drive ATVs, education is key to preventing accidents, said Lt. Mike Burroughs, a spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol.

Florida law prohibits ATVs from being operated on public roads.

Burroughs said violators can face fines of $500 or more and that parents who knowingly let their children ride in such areas can face criminal charges.

"Our biggest concern is that these vehicles are being utilized outside the scope they were intended for," Burroughs said. "The age group they're being used by and where they're being operated is also a problem."

Burroughs said the burden of supervision is up to parents and that laws may need to be stiffened to hold them accountable.

While he doesn't think the vehicles themselves are unsafe, he said there's a great potential for injury or death when people ride ATVs without proper training.

Deborah Ball can be reached at (352) 374-5036 or balld@gvillesun.com.

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