WASHINGTON—Safety experts and consumer advocates said Tuesday that tough new nationwide regulations are necessary to assure the safety of all-terrain vehicles.
"The current approach, the voluntary one, has allowed deaths to continue and actually increase," Rachel Weintraub, the director of product safety for the Consumer Federation of America, told the Senate consumer affairs, product safety and insurance subcommittee.
ATVs, designed for off-road driving, have been popular recreation vehicles for decades. They're commonly purchased for family fun as well as for hunting and fieldwork. The number of ATV drivers has increased by 36 percent since 1997, from 12 million to more than 16 million operators, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Currently, a driver's license isn't required to operate an ATV, and age restrictions vary by state and by size of vehicle. Five states have no ATV controls; the rest have issued a spectrum of regulations from minimal to heavy. In addition, leading makers follow voluntary industry standards for equipment, configuration and performance.
Under this system, at least 136,100 people suffered ATV injuries serious enough to require emergency room treatment in 2004, according to the consumer agency. Of the 2004 injuries requiring ER care, 31 percent involved children under age 16. The totals for 2004 are incomplete, the agency noted.
The agency counted 18 ATV deaths this year over the Memorial Day weekend alone.
"It defies logic," said Mary Aitken, the associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. "No state or local government allows children to drive cars. Yet an unlicensed child is permitted to drive an ATV at high speeds, without a helmet, on unpaved surfaces in virtually any area."
The consumer agency unveiled a package of proposed ATV rules last week that would ban three-wheeled all-terrain vehicles and limit the top speed of four-wheelers intended for kids ages 6 to 8 to 10 mph. For kids 9 to 11, the speed limit would be 15 mph. ATVs for kids 12 and older would have a 30 mph speed limit and would include devices that would allow parents to limit their speed to 15 mph.
Most ATV manufacturers have stopped selling three-wheeled ATVs, which have an accident rate three times higher than four-wheeled ATVs, according to the commission.
U.S. makers and distributors say the regulations would be impossible to enforce on some imported ATVs sold directly to U.S. consumers via the Internet. A compliance study of four such models made in China and intended for children under 16 found that none met U.S. voluntary standards for manufacturers.
Tim Buche, the president of the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, an alliance of ATV makers, urged lawmakers to impose federal legislation that would enable customs officials to better regulate imported ATVs.
"Some would say this smells of protectionism. Absolutely—the protection of our consumers," Buche said.
The consumer product agency meets June 15 to formalize its proposed new regulations.
Some safety experts think that only a ban on ATVs for children under 16 will solve the problem.
ATV dealer Brett Williams, the general manager of Coleman PowerSports in Woodbridge, Va., said that approach is misguided.
"The problem is not in the dealer showrooms; it's out where the vehicles are being used and where children are getting access to them," he said. "Passing a federal law targeted against small independent businesses like our dealerships will have no positive real world effect."
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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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