ATVs and kids: Is a little fun worth hospital bed or coffin?

Scenes I'd rather not have seen during the recent school spring break:

Two girls who couldn't have been more than 6 years old, bouncing around a farmyard on an adult 4-wheeler. They were so small, one wondered how they managed to drive the thing.

Three boys, all looking to be 10 or less, hanging on an ATV utility carrier bumping alongside a highway at high speed.

Four girls, the oldest perhaps 13, riding a 4-wheeler on a paved road, completely oblivious to traffic.

Not one of the kids was wearing a helmet. In every instance I saw no adults anywhere around to see (or apparently care) what their children were doing.

One can only wonder what the parents of these youngsters were thinking when they turned them loose, unsupervised, on machinery designed for adults.

I see it all the time, as I travel about the Mid-South — children who have no concept of the potential danger, or the experience or sense to cope with it, racing around on these grownup machines.

And every year I see reports of kids killed or severely injured in ATV accidents. Just last week three people — including a three-year-old girl — died in Arkansas ATV accidents.

How much is this kind of fun worth to parents who have to see their mangled child in a hospital bed … or a coffin?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission pegs ATV deaths at over 700 per year — about 30 percent are children under age 16 — and more than 136,000 serious injuries. Although the CPSC statistics compiling process is ponderously slow, its last report, dated Dec. 31, 2004, showed Tennessee eighth in the nation in ATV deaths; Arkansas 11th, Mississippi 12th, and Louisiana 19th.

I received this e-mail a year or so ago. I've omitted names.

“My 14-year old son was killed riding an ATV while visiting with a friend's family. We got the call that he had been rushed to the hospital and was unconscious. En route to the hospital we learned our son was gone forever.

“Our family has been destroyed. Our hearts are broken and will never be the same. ATVs are not toys. A 600-pound machine that is capable of traveling 50 miles an hour with no seat belts or safety equipment is not a toy.

“My son was a wonderful child. He had never ridden anything but a bicycle before that day. Now he's gone from us forever.”

ATV safety recommendations from the CPSC have been printed so many times it seems the ultimate redundancy. Still, kids who shouldn't be driving these machines are. Kids who shouldn't be riding on these machines with other kids are. So, once more, these rules for kids and ATVs:

  • Those under 16 shouldn't operate adult ATVs (engines bigger than 90 cc).

  • Always wear a helmet.

  • Never drive an ATV on paved roads.

  • Never drive an ATV with a passenger and never ride as a passenger.

  • Take a hands-on safety course.

Children are precious. They should have fun, sure, but their safety and protection should always be paramount.

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