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Deaths prompt call for ATV age limits

July 26, 2004|by DAVID DISHNEAU

HAGERSTOWN - The recent deaths of two young boys whose all-terrain vehicles collided in a Western Maryland field are prompting a closer look at state regulations by those who urge age limits for ATV riders.

Maryland is among the majority of states with no general minimum age limit for ATV use, according to the Consumer Federation of America. Riders on state forest trails must be at least 14 and wear helmets, but there are no such restrictions when riding on private property.

In West Virginia, Berkeley, Morgan and Jefferson counties passed laws this year clamping down on ATV use after a state law banned riding ATVs on some roads.

The state law allowed counties to pass tougher laws if they have a comprehensive plan. All three counties took advantage. In Berkeley and Jefferson counties, ATVs are not allowed on any county roads. The only exception is in Jefferson County, ATV riders with a valid driver's license can cross a public road at a 90-degree angle.

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The Washington-based Consumer Federation has been advocating since 2002 for laws barring ATV use by children younger than 16, a group that accounts for about a third of ATV-related deaths and injuries.

The ATV industry urges a more lenient standard, recommending that states bar children younger than 16 from operating adult-sized ATVs, defined as those with engines bigger than 90 cubic centimeters, on public land. Children as young as 12 would be allowed to drive 70cc to 90cc machines under the manufacturer's model legislation.

The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission endorses the industry's recommended age limits. Since 1988, it has relied on the industry to voluntarily comply with a consent agreement not to sell ATVs for use by children younger than the minimum age recommendations.

Yet ATV-related deaths and injuries to children continue to rise. From 1997 through 2001, the number of estimated injuries associated with ATVs in the United States and Puerto Rico more than doubled to 111,700, according the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Reported deaths reached 467 in 2001 compared with 241 in 1997, the agency said.

Commission spokesman Ken Giles said the increased injuries, which cannot be entirely explained by higher ATV sales, are "of great concern," but the solution isn't easy. The commission is considering barring sales of ATVs for use by children younger than 16, but the federal government has no authority to regulate ridership, Giles said.

"What happens when you get that vehicle home?" Giles said. "That's where you have to at least ask the question, could something be done at the state and local level?"

It's too late for 11-year-old Zachary Beard of Boonsboro and 8-year-old Cody Pollard of Woodbridge, Va. They were fatally injured July 3 when Beard's ATV crashed head-on into one carrying Pollard and driven by another 8-year-old. Both machines had 229cc engines, much more powerful than those the government and manufacturers consider appropriate for such young children.

Barbara Beckett, state coordinator for the National Safe Kids Campaign, said such tragedies sometimes focus attention on a problem - but she said regulation isn't always the answer.

"Obviously, one death is one too many for all of us that are safety advocates, but when you are passing laws and having legislation, you need to be judicious about what you are doing," Beckett said. "We have to look and see is there truly a problem in Maryland that needs to be addressed by legislation?"

Maryland had 32 deaths from ATV-related injuries from 1982 through 2002, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Four more died from ATV-related injuries last year, according to the state medical examiner's office.

The deaths in Boonsboro have shaken Jane Smith, of nearby Jefferson, Md., who runs a regional children's safety camp for the Frederick County Farm Bureau. She said her 9-year-old granddaughter just got an ATV, and now Smith is considering contacting state legislators about ATV regulation.

"Every fatality or even a bad, bad accident bothers me. Lot's of times I can't sleep," she said. "What is it with children that they have to go fast?"

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