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Victims' families, manufacturers at standstill over ATV safety

WASHINGTON—Despite decades of debate over how to curb deaths and injuries caused by all-terrain vehicle accidents, safety advocates and manufacturers said Wednesday that they've reached only modest common ground.

The standstill reflects a great divide over how to address the harm being inflicted, particularly on children who ride ATVs.

In 2005, ATVs killed at least 120 children younger than 16, a quarter of all ATV fatalities nationwide. Recorded deaths among all riders exceeded 600 in 2004, though regulators think the number of annual fatalities may be higher than official statistics show. In addition, emergency room visits run about 135,000 a year.

Regulators, Congress, states and even consumer groups can't agree on the best safety guidance to issue.

Some of these conflicts were aired at a Senate transportation subcommittee hearing Wednesday, which was attended by only one member, its chairman, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.

The two witnesses who testified, a lawyer for an ATV company and a director of a consumer safety group, agreed that they want to strengthen safety rules for imported ATVs—but didn't agree on how meaningful the change would be.

"New entrants have continued to flood the U.S. market with hundreds of thousands of substandard ATVs," said David P. Murray, an attorney for Yamaha Motor Corp.

"Efforts to deal solely with imported ATVs will have a marginal benefit to the health and safety of Americans riding ATVs," said Rachel Weintraub, director of public safety at the Consumer Federation of America.

The parent of an ATV victim who attended the hearing said it seemed like foreign competition was the witnesses' most important concern.

"It doesn't sound like safety to me—it sounds like protectionism," said Carolyn Anderson of Brockton, Mass., whose son James died in 2004 when the ATV he was riding hit a rock and sent him flying into a tree.

Anderson, who founded a group called Concerned Families for ATV Safety, is lobbying for a ban on ATVs for anyone under 16, a position shared by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Weintraub's group, meanwhile, wants to ban only adult-sized ATVs from being sold for use by children.

Other various safety tips include wearing a helmet, staying off paved roads, not allowing a passenger to be on an ATV meant for one person, taking a training class and not operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Michelle Fidler of Kannapolis, N.C., who lost her 5-year-old son Cody in a dirt-bike accident in March, said in a phone interview from her home that she's not in favor of age limits. She thinks that if children have to wait until a certain time to ride, they're more likely to rush into riding instead of growing into the sport.

"That's going to cause more danger than anything," Fidler said. Her child died on a motocross racetrack when he was hit by a vehicle larger than his dirt bike, which as a two-wheeler isn't subject to North Carolina's ATV laws. Fidler blames the track for mixing two-wheelers and four-wheelers and for not separating riders by age and size.

North Carolina's 2005 standards, which specify the minimum ages for children to ride two youth-sized ATVs, are considered landmark rules by the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America.

But they don't line up with regulations being proposed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates vehicles meant for off-road use. The commission wants manufacturers to create a third youth-sized vehicle to prevent teenagers from graduating too early to ATVs meant for adults.

There are about 7.6 million ATVs in use in this country. They're designed to be driven off of paved roads usually by one person, though there are tandem vehicles that allow an additional passenger.

Safety problems are hardly a new development with ATVs, which look like a riding lawn mower but tend to be lower, with broad tires and a seat that requires drivers to straddle the vehicle.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission began considering federal regulations in the 1980s because of an increasing number of deaths and injuries. But it aborted the process and instead labeled the vehicles an "imminently hazardous consumer product." It filed suit against the five major ATV distributors in 1987.

The suit was settled with a consent decree in which the distributors agreed to stop selling three-wheel ATVs, which are more unstable and difficult to steer than four-wheelers. They agreed to offer safety warnings and training, and issue vehicle age recommendations based on engine size.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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