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Put Off-Road Vehicles Off-Limits for Kids

If your young child begs for an all-terrain vehicle (ATV), doctors say you should resist.

In the past two decades, more than 1,400 children under age 16 have died in ATV accidents, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Emergency rooms treat about 33,000 children in that age group for ATV-related injuries each year. What's more, injuries rose 63 percent in the past five years.

"The safest thing is for kids under 16 not to operate these things," says Scott B. Scutchfield, M.D., assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Kentucky. Parents "need to be aware of the fact that ATVs are not toys. Children under 16 are 4-1/2 times more likely to have injuries than adults."

Dr. Scutchfield has seen ATV injuries ranging from strains, sprains and broken bones to damaged spines. "These things roll back over on people, and they really do fairly severe damage.

"I think people need to push for laws to govern the use of these things," he says. State laws are inconsistent and often unenforced. Very few states require a license to operate an ATV, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), and children as young as 5 run them.

Both the AAOS and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have called for state laws. "It's a nationwide sort of problem," says Dr. Scutchfield, not just a rural issue. "Training courses should be mandated across the country."

In 1988, the ATV industry agreed to stop making three-wheel ATVs, which the AAOS and AAP both call unstable. The industry also started a free driver education program that Dr. Scutchfield labels "excellent." But only about one in four people take the course, he says.

The ABCs of ATV safety

If you or your teenager has an ATV, these steps can cut risks:

  • Read all instruction manuals.

  • Attend training courses.

  • Never carry passengers.

  • Never operate an ATV on pavement or on a public road.

  • Always wear protective gear. Dr. Scutchfield suggests helmets, goggles, boots and long pants.

  • Do not operate at excessive speeds or after dark.

  • Do not operate under use of drugs or alcohol.

  • Never operate a three-wheel ATV.