It was supposed to be fun. hanging out with his cousin on a sunny Texas afternoon in 2005, B. J. Smith, then 15, decided to go for a spin on his uncle's new all-terrain vehicle. Even though the boys had been told not to go near the 386-pound machine unsupervised, B.J., a handsome kid with a football player's build, wanted to see what the 350cc ATV could do. With nothing but open road in front of him, B.J., who had been riding motorcycles since he was 5, reached nearly 60mph. Then a dog ran out unexpectedly and clipped the front wheel. B.J.'s life was forever altered. "He lost control of the ATV, and basically he flew 25 feet and hit the street with his head," says his mom, Kim. Blood poured from his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. Doctors said B.J. had only a 10 percent chance of survival. "His brain was so swollen they had to cut out a piece of his skull," recalls Kim. "He's my only child. It was absolutely horrible."
With summer on its way, ATV enthusiasts are gearing up for a chance to get muddy. But ERs across the country are bracing for an influx of young patients like B. J. Smith. The number of ATV-related emergency-room visits in the United States has more than doubled in recent years, from 52,200 in 1995 to 136,700 in 2005. Sadly, children younger than 16 account for roughly one third of all ATV-related deaths and injuries. "It's a national epidemic," says Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Columbus Children's Hospital and chair of an American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) committee on injury prevention. It's also costly: a recent study concluded that Ohio has in excess of 10,000 ER visits each year for ATV-related injuries, which translates into $30 million in annual hospital charges. "And that's just one state," says Smith.
Despite the high injury rates, ATV sales during each of the past five years have been about 850,000, up from 326,000 in 1996. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission long ago issued guidelines for ATV safety, but despite the warnings—and a slew of stickers, signs and a free safety-training course from major ATV manufacturers—parents and kids often disregard the risks. "ATVs are fun, and they're safe when they're ridden responsibly by a well-trained rider," says Mike Mount, spokesman for the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, an industry group. "Unfortunately, some riders choose not to heed the safety warnings provided."
More than 30 states have laws prohibiting young children from riding ATVs, but the restrictions often include a waiver if the children are supervised, or apply only to riding on public lands. Other states outlaw extra passengers or require helmets, but few states have gone as far as North Carolina, which in October began requiring safety training for all recreational riders born after Jan. 1, 1990. The AAP has called for legislation in all states prohibiting children under 16 from using ATVs. Kids, the docs say, simply don't have the cognitive skills, size or strength to operate the vehicles safely. "One can argue that ATVs are even more difficult to drive than a car," says Dr. Denise Dowd, a member of the AAP's injury-prevention committee, citing the need to repeatedly shift balance while riding.
Next week a Senate subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing on whether there should be federal restrictions. Meanwhile, major ATV manufacturers, aware that many parents permit youngsters to ride adult models, are introducing "transitional" ATVs, aimed at picky teenagers. They don't look like kiddie bikes, but aren't as powerful as adult ATVs. Critics, like the Consumer Federation of America's Rachel Weintraub, say they just confuse the issue. "There's no evidence adolescents can safely operate ATVs," says Weintraub. "What we need is tighter regulations, not more bikes."
For people like B. J. Smith, who lives with traumatic brain injury, and Katie Kearney, whose 8-year-old son, Sean, died in an ATV accident on Oct. 27, strong state or federal laws that follow AAP guidelines are overdue. "While most people were choosing Halloween costumes," says Kearney, "we were choosing what our son was going to wear for his wake."