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Safety advocates urge caution for children on ATVs

POSTED: June 2, 2008 5:00 a.m.
MICHAEL PHILLIPS/The Times

Brooks Swanson, an employee at Gainesville Motorsports, moves a Suzuki Quadsport Z50 on Wednesday afternoon. The Suzuki is rated for drivers as young as age 6.

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The death of a 7-year-old Braselton boy in an ATV accident Monday has renewed concerns about the safety of children riding all-terrain vehicles.

"I don’t think parents understand how fast these things can go, and they don’t understand that their child does not have the reflexes to control it," said Margie Leathers, a registered nurse and manager of injury prevention at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Authorities said Michael Samples, 7, was killed Monday evening while riding in an ATV on his parents’ property. According to Maj. David Cochran, spokesman for the Jackson County Sheriff’s office, the boy was in a "side-by-side," which is wider and more stable than a typical ATV.

Cochran said Michael and his 5-year-old brother were passengers and a 10-year-old female relative was driving the vehicle. When the girl drove under a parked semi-trailer, Michael’s head hit the side of the trailer and he died instantly.

Unlike most states, Georgia sets no minimum age for ATV drivers or riders. It also has no law requiring ATV users to wear helmets or other safety gear.

Children’s health advocates have been trying for years to get a law passed in Georgia, so far to no avail.

"We can’t even get a law passed for seat belts in pickup trucks," said Kim Martin, coordinator of Safe Kids Gainesville/Hall County. "So I don’t have much hope of getting an ATV law passed."

Martin said ATVs were originally designed for utilitarian use on farms, so any bill regulating the vehicles tends to meet with resistance from rural, agricultural areas of Georgia.

But Leathers said an ATV task force continues to push for legislation, not to infringe on the rights of adults, but to protect children. She said Emory University physician Dr. Randolph Cribbs has compiled a report showing the impact of ATV accidents on Georgia’s kids.

"He looked at the state trauma register from 2003 through 2005, and found that 9 percent of all ER visits for children under 16 were because of ATV injuries," said Leathers.

She said kids are brought in with broken bones, skull fractures, lacerated internal organs. "Lots of children end up with permanent disabilities," she said. "They can be in wheelchairs, paralyzed or have severe head trauma."

Because of the potential for "significant mortality and morbidity," the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend that children younger than 16 operate any kind of off-road vehicle.

But the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission only recommends that children younger than 16 should not drive a "full-size" ATV.

Mark Bellows, sales manager at Gainesville Motorsports, said ATV manufacturers voluntarily agreed in the 1980s that they would not market full-size vehicles to children, and the dealers have to abide by that policy.

"If we know that a child is going to have access to a certain size of machine, we can’t sell it," Bellows said, though he acknowledged that salespeople have to rely on parents to truthfully disclose that information.

Adult-size ATVs may have an engine capacity ranging from 125cc to 400cc. Bellows said there are two smaller sizes of ATVs that the consumer commission considers safe for children.

"We will sell a 90cc to ages 12 and up, and a 50cc for ages 6 and up," he said. "There are some machines coming out of China that are smaller than that, but reputable U.S. dealers aren’t selling them."

Bellows said the child-size ATVs have throttle controls so parents can adjust the maximum speed.

"And though we don’t have a helmet law in Georgia for off-road vehicles, for children we do recommend helmets, boots, eye protection," he said.

He added that each vehicle comes with an instructional video. "And we recommend that anyone buying an ATV take a free safety course. Honda offers one at their facility in Alpharetta."

But Leathers said few purchasers follow up on that suggestion.

"According to Dr. Cribbs’ research, 20,218 new ATVs were sold in Georgia in 2006, and out of those, 689 people took the safety course," she said.

Even if children do attend a safety class, Leathers said, pediatricians still do not believe kids should ride ATVs.

"Even the little tiny (vehicles) are extremely heavy, weighing about 170 pounds," Leathers said. "That’s pretty heavy for a 50-pound child to control."

Many accidents occur because an ATV goes out of control, especially on rough terrain, and flips over, pinning the rider underneath. Young riders also tend to run into objects because they don’t have good steering skills. On impact, they may be thrown from the vehicle, which often leads to head injury.

"They also put passengers on the ATV, which is pretty much a no-no," said Leathers. "It throws the vehicle off balance."

She said it particularly bothers her to see a parent riding an ATV with a small child in their lap, something that would be against the law in Georgia if they were driving a car.

"We’ve had some pretty small children come through our ER because they were riding on an ATV with a parent," she said.

Bellows said ATVs can be safe when operated properly. But there’s no substitute for parental responsibility.

"You can’t force parents to observe their children at all times," he said. "And sometimes you can’t convince them that their child is not really mature enough to operate an ATV."

Martin said most children younger than 16 simply don’t have the physical, emotional and mental development needed to handle a powerful machine.

"We try to educate the parents, because it’s not the kids who are buying these ATVs," she said.

But Bellows said children always run the risk of injury in any type of activity, including bicycling or other sports.

"You tend to hear about the bad stuff (about ATVs), the kids who get hurt," he said. "You don’t hear about the millions who ride safely."



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