WASHINGTON – Fourteen-year-old James Anderson was having the best summer of his life.
The fun-loving boy was a pitcher for his pony league team and had just finished playing a tournament in New Hampshire. Afterward, James and his teammates went to a friend’s lakeside home to swim, go boating and goof off.
James’ hosts offered their all-terrain vehicles for the boys to ride. James hopped aboard a 700-pound ATV with a 500 cc engine and sped off through the woods. The next time his friends saw him, he was unconscious and dying. He had crashed into a tree on a backwoods trail. It was the first and last time he rode an ATV.
“He was this beautiful, happy child,” said his mother, Carolyn Anderson, of Massachusetts. “I just miss him so much.”
Trying to help other families, Anderson helped start Concerned Families for ATV Safety and is lobbying Congress and state legislatures to ban children under 16 from driving or riding on ATVs, a position supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics. But she faces an uphill battle against ATV manufacturers and federal safety officials who say a ban is extreme and unworkable. It makes more sense, they say, to take measures to keep kids off the adult-size vehicles that cause more than 90 percent of their injuries and deaths.
The Senate commerce committee recently held hearings on ATV dangers, and Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, plans to introduce legislation as early as this week to improve safety standards for both established ATV makers and newer Chinese imports. On the state level, an Idaho Senate panel in March killed a bill that would have banned ATVs on city and county roads unless local officials passed rules to allow them.
The issue is underscored every summer when ATV deaths and injuries rise. This Memorial Day weekend alone, 18 people – including five children – died in ATV accidents throughout the nation, said Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
James, who died in August 2004, was one of at least 2,178 children under 16 killed in ATV accidents from 1982 through 2005. In September 2006, an 11-year-old Orofino girl died after crashing an ATV that she was driving with her mother and 1-year-old sister aboard.
Deaths and injuries of children have increased as ATVs have become more powerful and popular, according to the commission. Injuries to children doubled from 22,000 in 1992 to 44,700 in 2004.
“These are not minor injuries,” Wolfson said. “Many of them are life-altering spinal injuries, head trauma that causes brain damage and severe breaks.”
Since 1998, most American and Japanese-based ATV makers have been part of a voluntary agreement with the safety commission to recommend customers not buy anything bigger than a 90 cc engine youth model ATV for children younger than 16. They also offer free safety courses to ATV buyers. But consumer advocates say the continuing rise in injuries and deaths shows the voluntary approach isn’t working.
“Not only has self-regulation by the ATV industry led to larger and faster ATVs and more children being killed and injured, but each year the number of deaths and injuries climb,” said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety at the Consumer Federation of America.
ATV manufacturers blame that in part on the growing influx of Chinese-based ATV makers who sell their products via the Internet and are not part of the voluntary agreement to warn parents not to buy adult-sized ATVs for their kids. About 35 percent of the nearly 1.2 million ATVs sold in the United States in 2006 came from China and Taiwan, according to industry lobbyists.
The unregulated imports “threaten to undermine the safety work we’ve been doing for the past two decades,” said Mike Mount, spokesman for the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, the trade association for the ATV industry.
The established ATV makers – which include Arctic Cat, Honda, Polaris, John Deere, Kawasaki and Yamaha – are now willing to accept mandatory safety standards for the first time to force their Chinese competitors to abide by the same rules.
But another proposal by the industry and the Consumer Product Safety Commission has alarmed consumer advocates, pediatricians and parents.
To try to keep older children away from the temptation of adult-size ATVs, they are proposing to create a larger “transitional” youth model aimed at children 12 to 15 who have grown too large for the current children’s models with 90 cc engines or less.
Rather than classify the vehicles by engine size, the industry is proposing using speed limits to lower the danger of the youth models. The transitional model would be able to go as fast as 20 to 30 mph. Once a child gains experience, parents could use tools to adjust the speed up to 38 mph. Adult-size models go as fast as 100 mph.
“If you have a 14-year-old boy who is 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 165 pounds, he’s not going to fit the youth model,” Wolfson said. “He’s going to want to jump on an adult ATV. We want to come up with a safer alternative.”
But doctors at the American Academy of Pediatrics say there is no evidence that putting kids on bigger youth models will cut the accident rate.
“We know that driving an ATV demands a tremendous amount of judgment, coordination and strength,” said Dr. Gary Smith, an emergency room pediatrician and director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Columbus Children’s Hospital.
“In my opinion, it requires more skill than driving a car,” Smith said. “You have to shift your weight as you maneuver, it requires split-second decision-making and the vehicles are designed to make you want to keep pushing your limits. Long arms and long legs don’t compensate for a lack of experience and judgment.”
Carolyn Anderson said James was a typical 14-year-old boy who was reportedly enjoying his first ATV ride by seeing how fast he could go.
She was in Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters when the accident occurred and had no idea James had even been on an ATV until she got the call he had died.
“Boys that age have no common sense, and they need protection,” she said. “In a split second on a sunny August day, his life was gone. He would be going to college this fall.
“I’ve sat through the high school graduations and proms that he missed. I’ve watch his friends grow up. You never get over what you’ve lost.”