For a disabled child found abandoned on a street corner in China at age 4, Guo Biao was doing pretty well by last fall.
A teenager, he was living with Dwayne and Sherri Bowman on their apple and cherry farm near Zillah, Wash.
He had a family and a new name: Zeke Bowman. For the first time, he got a hearing aid for his deformed ear.
And then last October, Zeke climbed aboard one of the Bowmans’ four all-terrain vehicles, just as he’d done many times before at the end of a day in the orchards. He headed down a two-lane country road called Lucy Lane. For reasons the Bowmans still ponder, he rear-ended a tractor and died that evening in the hospital.
ATV tragedies like this – on roads, rather than backcountry trails where ATVs are designed to go – are widespread and have increased in recent years. The latest U.S. figures indicate that ATV crashes kill more than 700 people and injure 100,000 others every year, with nearly two-thirds of the fatal accidents occurring on public or private roads.
The accidents keep happening even though all ATVs sold in the U.S. carry a warning label stating that the vehicles are not to be driven on the road. Their high center of gravity and low-pressure tires mean they’re likely to tip over or go out of control on pavement. What’s more, the vehicles aren’t held to federal safety standards for cars and trucks, such as the requirement for seat belts, even though they can reach highway speeds.
Some 35 states allow ATVs to travel on roadways under certain conditions, according to a report released last month by the Consumer Federation of America. Twenty-two states have passed laws allowing or expanding ATV access to roads since 2004, with four states doing so in 2013 alone.
Meanwhile, at least 18 states or local jurisdictions are considering opening more roads to ATVs, according to the federation. Last month the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Central Washington decided to allow ATVs on roads.
“We are moving backward on this issue,” said Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and senior counsel for the consumer federation, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of more than 300 consumer groups.
A list of fatalities
While the Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates hazardous products and the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission oversees traffic safety, neither federal agency has authority over where people ride ATVs.
Yet clearly, consumers are dying, as a litany of news accounts attests:
• In August, 17-year-old Mark Clark was riding an ATV on a road near Leavenworth, Wash., when he lost control and was thrown against a tree. He died after the vehicle rolled into him.
• The same month, Pablo Correno Martinez was riding on a rural road southeast of Boise where he crashed into a roadside ditch. He was pitched from the ATV and died at the scene.
• Andrea Allen, 22, was carrying three toddlers on an ATV in Center Point, Ind., last summer when she veered off the pavement and went into a ditch. The vehicle caught fire, and Allen and two of the toddlers, one of whom was her son, died.
• The following week in North Plymouth, Mass., 25-year-old Joseph Vandini was killed when he lost control while driving an ATV. He crashed into a curb and a tree, and was thrown through a plate-glass window, causing fatal head injuries.
Safety advocates fear accidents such as these will become more common as efforts to open more paved surfaces to ATVs gain traction. Last year, the Washington Legislature passed a law allowing ATVs on roads with a speed limit of 35 mph or lower in seven rural counties. The law also gave counties and municipalities in the rest of the state the power to decide whether to do the same. (Washington lawmakers this year considered a bill that would allow counties to open roads with higher speed limits to ATVs, but the measure stalled after passing 90-6 in the House.)
Lawmakers in Missouri and Michigan in 2013 gave local governments similar discretion. An Iowa measure backed by riders groups that would have opened country roads across the state to ATVs stalled in committee but local initiatives are moving ahead. Local jurisdictions in Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Wisconsin, Utah, Vermont and Virginia have considered or approved such actions since the beginning of 2012.
“It’s a very unfortunate trend,” said Robert Adler, acting chairman of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is studying ATV safety with the aim of possibly writing new regulations governing design of the vehicles. ATVs are getting bigger and more powerful, he said, “taking a machine that is quite dangerous and increasing the hazards.”
A national study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found 1,701 ATV rider deaths on public roads from 2007 to 2011. Of those deaths, 24 occurred in Washington, 19 in Oregon and 28 in Idaho. Idaho and South Dakota are the only states to allow ATVs to use state highways, according to a December 2013 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Steve Lind, deputy director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, opposed liberalizing the ATV rules. “ATVs are a poor mix on the road with other vehicles,” he said.
Tourism one incentive
Most states still prohibit ATVs from streets, often with exceptions for farmers or others who use ATVs for work or for riders of trails that cross roads. But riders groups and local ATV clubs have made headway by arguing that opening more roads to ATVs will draw tourists and provide local residents a cheap way to motor around.
Public health advocates say such moves undermine safety messages and confuse the public. “They think it will bring increased tourism revenue to various states and jurisdictions, but at what cost?” Weintraub said.
The companies that make the machines say they shouldn’t be used on roads at all. “Off-highway vehicles are not designed to be ridden on roads,” said Paul Vitrano, executive vice president and general counsel for the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, a trade group representing ATV manufacturers. Vitrano said his group “vigorously opposes” efforts to open roads to ATVs. However, the manufacturers want to remain on good terms with rider groups, and critics have questioned how hard they to try to discourage on-road use of ATVs.
Many ATV users are loath to see more restrictions, even Dwayne Bowman, Zeke’s father. Bowman said he noticed the manufacturers’ warnings against riding ATVs on asphalt.
Nevertheless, “It’s a necessity for us,” he said.