Danger on Four Wheels

updated 05/03/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Fourth-grader Kyle Rabe had just finished an afternoon snack. Then he went back to doing what he loved best—riding his family's all-terrain vehicle across the open fields of rural Turner, Ore. Moments later Kyle's parents, Tom and Sue, got a frantic call from a neighbor that something had happened. Racing over, they saw Kyle, 10, lying motionless and fecedown on the side of a hill. The 500-lb. ATV, which another neighbor had pulled off Kyle, rested nearby. Tom tried CPR, but it was no use. His only son died in his arms. "Tom told me he could smell the cookies and milk on Kyle's breath," says Sue. "Then he could feel Kyle's warm body growing cold. It's so hard to believe we lost him in the blink of an eye."

What's worse is that the Rabes' tragedy is no isolated incident. As the popularity of ATVs has skyrocketed in recent years—roughly 800,000 were sold in 2002, double the number in 1997—so too has the body count from accidents on the vehicles, with children accounting for an alarming number of the victims. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that while children under 16 comprise 17 percent of ATV drivers, they represent one-third of all the injuries and deaths involving the vehicles. In 2001 there were 467 deaths from ATVs—119 of them children. (Last year rocker Ozzy Osbourne was seriously injured when he crashed his ATV in England.)

That is only a small percentage of the deaths and injuries from bicycle accidents. But there is a growing outcry that something must be done to improve ATV safety for kids—who, in most states, are allowed to ride the large, powerful vehicles regardless of age, with few if any restrictions. (As with snowmobiles and Jet Skis, ATVs have remained minimally regulated, thanks in part to strong lobbying efforts by local dealer and rider groups.) "It's a slaughter," says Dr. Gary Smith, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee that monitors the issue. "If this were SARS, people would be screaming about it."

Smith emphatically endorses the academy's position that, because kids under the age of 16 lack the necessary judgment and skills, they should never be allowed aboard an ATV of any size. "The numbers speak for themselves," says Smith. "Children aren't ready to ride ATVs." ATV manufacturers agree with that proposition—up to a point. Their main lobbying group, the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, has consistently stated that children should not be riding full-size quads. But, says Roger Hagie, chairman of the SVIA, "ATVs designed specifically for kids are safe."

There is no denying that since coming on the market some 20 years ago, four-wheel ATVs—which cost between $1,500 and $8,000 and can exceed speeds of 70 mph—have proved useful, particularly on farms, where their ability to haul heavy loads over rugged terrain has made them an essential piece of machinery. But for many ATV riders, especially young people, it's less about completing chores than chasing fun. "It's a blast to be out there riding with your friends and family," says Jeanne McFarland, 40, of Valley Center, Calif., who with her husband, Jim, and kids Jon, 16, and Jordan, 8, spends many long weekends at one of the meccas for four-wheeling, the Glamis sand dunes near the Arizona border. "It's exhilarating."

Sue Rabe understands that sentiment all too well. In her part of Oregon there are few paved roads where kids can ride bicycles or scooters. Kyle started riding a child-size ATV when he was 6, graduating three years later to an adult size, which he used to pull a trailer and inspect trees on the family's 160-acre timber farm. It scarcely crossed Sue's mind that the machine might pose a danger. "They look safe," says Sue, 45. "It sits so low to the ground, you don't think it will tip over."

The problem is that if it does, the result can be catastrophic—particularly for a child riding an adult-size ATV. Even now the Rabes aren't sure exactly what happened to Kyle, who, they say, was always a very careful driver. It appears that the full-size ATV, which was twice the weight of a child's model, rolled over on him and compressed his lungs so that he could not breathe. "I always tell people that when Kyle rode it, he was as good as any adult," says Tom, 52, "but when it rolled over and he hit the ground, he was just a little boy—he only weighed 86 lbs."

Older children are not immune to these hazards either. Carlton Powell Jr., 14, an athletic youngster who played basketball, was riding a full-size ATV last July with his cousins near Laurel, Md., when the vehicle evidently tipped over, crushing his face. His father, Carlton Sr.—who was nearby—rushed to his son's side, but by the time paramedics arrived, he was dead. "I wish I'd have known what I know now—I never would have let him touch it," says Carlton Sr., 49. "I never cried much before, but since his death it has been almost every day."

Even those who survive ATV mishaps can suffer horrific injuries. In November 2000 Luke Armbrister, then 11, had an accident while out riding his family's quad near their home in Claremore, Okla. When his father, Jeff, got to him and turned him over, he could scarcely believe what he saw—his son's face had been mangled almost beyond recognition. Defying doctors' predictions, Luke managed to survive. He spent four months in the hospital and has since undergone 54 surgical procedures. "I feel very fortunate to have my son," says his mom, Karen, 37. "But once you have an accident like this, it takes the happiness out."

Some ATV enthusiasts contend that such tragedies could often be avoided if parents made sure their kids had proper safety training (see box). Steve Mandich, 46, a firefighter-paramedic from Valley Center, Calif., also rides the dunes at Glamis with his wife, Paula, 39, and their daughters Kayla, 9, and Megan, 12, and says his family has minimized the risks by repeated safety lessons. "[But] I think we're in a small minority of the general public to really be thorough about how you should ride," he says. "I teach my kids that you ride as fast as you're willing to crash."

Smith, who works in the emergency room at Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, worries when he hears that sort of talk. "What I see is the other side," he says. "I see good parents—great parents—coming in with their children with tears in their eyes, saying, 'I can't believe it happened.' Many good parents simply don't perceive the real danger involved with riding an ATV."

The industry and consumer groups remain at odds about how to keep children off bigger vehicles. At present the industry asks that dealers voluntarily prohibit sales of adult ATVs for use by children, even though there is clearly no way to monitor compliance. "The simple step of keeping children under 16 on the right-size ATV reduces the risk of injury by at least a third," says Mike Mount, a spokesman for the SVIA. "ATVs are not toys, but we believe they are safe when ridden responsibly." The Consumer Federation of America wants the federal government to impose a formal regulation banning the sale of full-size ATVs for use by children; the industry would rather see laws toughened on a state-by-state basis. For example, in March, West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise signed a new law mandating that anyone under 18 who rides an ATV must have a safety-training certificate.

As a practical matter, though, responsibility for deciding whether kids should ride rests with parents. In Oregon the Rabes, still mourning the loss of Kyle, have no doubt where they stand. "When he died, the whole world changed in a split second," says Tom. "He was a unique child who would have made a difference. He was all promise and potential."

By Bill Hewitt. Alexandra Rockey Fleming in Washington, D.C.

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