All-terrain vehicles, or ATVs, are a controversial subject. For those who ride, ATVs are an exciting way to spend time outdoors. Others view the vehicles as a noisy threat to the environment. A recent study conducted by consumer, children's and environmental groups says ATVs are a serious health threat to children and that the industry needs stricter regulation.
A new national study reports alarming numbers. Over the past 20 years, more than 4,500 Americans died riding ATVs. Of those deaths, 38 percent were children under 16. Half of those, were under the age of 12. The report makes several recommendations to reverse the trend. One in particular is getting a lot of attention - to ban kids under 16 from riding from ATVs.
Scott Kovarovics is director of the Natural Trails and Waters Coalition, a non-profit environmental group. He says the numbers are chilling. Study results show most children ride ATVs designed for adults. Kovarovics says the laws regulating ATV drivers are not consistent. Twenty-four states have no minimum age, and 19 states permit 8-to-12 year-olds to drive an ATV.
In Minnesota, 12-to-16 year-olds who drive ATVs on public property must wear helmets, take an ATV safety training course and operate machines with engines no larger than 90cc. Karvarovics wants national regulations that are consistent from state to state.
"Things like having a minimum age to drive them," he says. "You need a license. You should have some specialized training because these vehicles are very complicated to operate."
"(The ATV manufacturers) have been in charge of safety for the better part of the last 15 years. There has been no improvement. There's been deterioration, and it's time for a change."
- Scott Kovarovics of the Natural Trails and Waters Coalition
Industry officials don't question the study's numbers, but they are wary of the environmental groups co-sponsoring the study. Tom Tiller is CEO of Polaris Industries, one of two Minnesota companies that make ATVs.
"We have a mandatory training program," Tiller says. "We make every rider - whether it's an adult or a kid - go through a training class before we sell them the product."
ATV manufacturers market ATVs as a family purchase. They also say it's safe for everyone. If you log onto the Polaris Web site, you'll find a rider profile area. There, you'll see a recommendation for an adult-sized ATV for a child. That's not company policy, according to Polaris CEO Tom Tiller.
"I don't know what they're trying to do on the Web page, but If you went into a dealership and a kid tried to buy a 500cc machine, they couldn't sell them one," says Tiller. "If a dealer sold an adult-sized machine to a kid, they would lose their dealership."
Thief River Falls-based Arctic Cat has a similar policy. CEO Chris Twomey says Arctic Cat pays for customers' safety training. The company also tests its dealers. Mystery shoppers approach dealers trying to buy adult machines for kids.
"We do that to at least 50 of our dealers on an annual basis," Twomey says. "Then those results are reported back to us. We take action if we find dealers who have, in fact, agreed to sell the unit for use for someone under 16."
Arctic Cat dealers who violate the policy are fined $1,000 and can lose their dealership. Polaris officials say any of their representatives caught selling adult machines for children will lose their franchise. Both companies say they've revoked franchise agreements with dealers, but they won't say how many.
The CEOs of both companies share concerns about ATV safety. But Chris Twomey and Tom Tiller say this may be another attempt to attack their industry. They say two of the groups associated with the study, Bluewater Network and Natural Trails and Waters Coalition have worked, in the past, to ban snowmobiles. Arctic Cat and Polaris are two of the nation's largest snowmobile manufactuers.
Scott Kovarovics of the Natural Trails and Waters Coalition says industry officials are skirting the real issue.
"This is a red herring that the industry throws up to deflect attention away from the fact that there is a serious (and) worsening problem," Kovarovics says.
"We have a mandatory training program. We make every rider - whether it's an adult or a kid - go through a training class before we sell them the product."
- Tom Tiller, CEO of Polaris Industries
"They have been in charge of safety for the better part of the last 15 years. There has been no improvement. There's been deterioration, and it's time for a change."
Industry offcials don't want government regulation. Tom Tiller of Polaris Industries says the issue should be about personal responsibility.
"When we sell a machine to a parent, I think the responsibility to make sure that the kid is wearing a helmet, and that the kid is following the rules, primarily rests with that parent," Tiller says.
The issue is generating a lively debate. Recent callers to MPR's Midmorning program offered their views. One caller, Randy from Mankato, lets his 5-year-old son ride a small ATV.
"You have to train kids how to ride," he says. "My daughter has never had an accident. My son, he's tipped his bike over a few times. He wants to jump jumps already. We've got to keep him slowed down, but if you teach them how to ride properly it's going to help a lot. It's going to save their life, basically."
Others agree parents should take an active role. Rachel Weintraub is with the Consumer Federation of America, and also appeared on Midmorning. Weintraub says ATV safety requires a broader approach.
"The government, the industry and parents - there is equal responsibility on all three of these sectors," Weintraub says. "It is only when all three are working together, and each take on their responsibility and take action about it, that they can affect change in a positive way."
Some say tougher ATV regulations are a long way off. Because two of the groups in the coalition supported a ban on snowmobiles, industry officials remain suspicious. It's likely efforts to change the current system will be met with strong resistance.More Information