Five years after her eight year old son, Sean, was killed in an all-terrain vehicle crash, Katie Kearney was invited, on a sweltering Saturday afternoon in August, 2010, to the Massachusetts State House. There, she was joined by other parents— like Carolyn Anderson, a founder of Concerned Families for ATV Safety—whose children had perished in ATV crashes. With them were advocates like Peter Masiakos—the emergency room doctor who had treated Katie’s son at Massachusetts General Hospital—and the legislators who had sponsored what would now become the nation’s first state law banning children under age 14 from riding the recreational four-wheelers within the Commonwealth’s borders.
It was an emotional day, the culmination of four years of legislative meetings, public hearings, media interviews, and countless hundreds of phone calls to politicians and their aides. But Katie’s work, and those of her partners in safety, was only beginning, and today, 22 months after Governor Deval Patrick signed what came to be known as Sean’s Law, Mrs. Kearney is still laboring intensively to ensure that parents across the Bay State are aware that this law exists, and more important, why it needs to exist.
Katie has been working cooperatively with the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages all trails and parks in Massachusetts, to ensure that the word gets out to parents—not just those in the ATV ridership community—that four wheeled ATVs are not to be ridden by kids within the state’s borders.
For the uninitiated, Massachusetts law was passed because legislators who are normally loathe to regulate recreational activities examined the data and recognized the huge and often unrecognized risk to children that accompanied ATV ridership. Pediatricians and leading medical groups agree that young children haven’t developed the strength, coordination or judgment needed to safely handle these types of machines, which require more skills to operate than driving a car.
Nationwide, ATVs seriously injure and kill over 40,000 of children under age 16 every year. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOP) have each adopted formal policies recommending that children under age 16 not drive ATVs.
The AAP states: “Laws should prohibit the use of ATVs, on- or off-road, by children and adolescents younger than 16 years. An automobile driver’s license, and preferably some additional certification in ATV use, should be required to operate an ATV. The safe use of ATVs requires the same or greater skill, judgment, and experience as needed to operate an automobile.”
The Massachusetts law set the age limit at 14, as a compromise with rural legislators who opposed any age restrictions in statute.
So why do so few people know this law exists? There is little incentive for ATV manufacturers and sellers to promote any safety law or regulation that could potentially cut into business. Further, the ATV industry’s ability to successfully market its products to children would make Kellogg’s or McDonald’s marketing reps weep with jealousy.
My town’s local video arcade features a very realistic ATV riding game that produces all of the adrenal rush of off-roading, with none of the real-life danger. For fifty cents (or two tokens), an eight year old can learn that ATV riding is cool, fun, exciting and very, very safe. The shelves at the Toys R Us across the street contain, in the preschooler section, a battery powered four-wheeled toy billed as “my first ATV,” with packaging that reads “ages 3 and up.” And this does not even take into account the actual REAL ATVs being sold around the nation to kids barely out of diapers, so that their adults can introduce them to “our favorite family sport,” as the riders’ websites like to call it.
Small wonder that ATV ridership, and injuries, remain a summertime staple in America.
According to Concerned Families for ATV Safety, there was a 150 percent increase in ATV-related injuries to children younger than 18 between 1997 and 2006. Hospitalizations for moderate to severe brain injuries tripled during this decade.
Concerned Families for ATV Safety notes that all states have laws governing or regulating ATV use and operation. They also have a helpful map on their website for anyone seeking this information. However, the laws vary in degree, and most only govern such basic items as helmet use or engine size, and many do not address what experts have come to identify as fixable root causes of ATV related injury such as riding ATVs on paved roads; carrying passengers; and poor product design that can lead to rollovers.
Ms. Gerene Denning of the University of Iowa, whose injury research team is conducting some significant research that may establish a new paradigm for ATV safety and injury prevention.
Denning and her team have broken down the problem of ATV crashes and rollovers into a number of categories that warrant further examination and support. They include the following:
Seat project: The Iowa group decided to make additional direct measurements of ATV seats, and has developed a method to derive seat length from online dealer pictures to increase the University’s ATV data set. The goal is to reduce the incidence of passenger injuries by redesigning seats to discourage multiple riders.
The University of Iowa researchers have surveyed more than 1800 students statewide, and found that 86% of the students surveyed had ridden an ATV at least a few times a year. Of those who have ridden an ATV, 94% report riding an ATV with at least one passenger.
Denning notes that 1 out of every 5 fatal ATV crashes involves multiple riders on adult-sized ATVs. Over half of these multiple-rider fatalities are victims under the age of 18. In cases of youth multiple-rider fatalities, half those killed were operators and half were passengers. When youth passengers were killed, 1 out of 3 of the operators were adults and 2 out of 3 were youths under 18.
Use of an ATV Simulator: The Iowa researchers are currently recruiting experienced adult ATV operators for initial studies. They have secured pilot funding to cover preliminary studies, and are hoping to work with the National Advanced Driving Simulator in Iowa and to conduct more sophisticated studies down the road.
School-based safety program: The state of Iowa has developed a curriculum for a school-based ATV safety program. According to Denning, the team has reached more than 2,500 students to date. Parents in their recent focus group indicated that school-based programs are an excellent way to reach their children. Goals are to continue both the school program and adult focus group testing, with an eye toward replicating the safety education program in other states.
On-road ATV crash and injury prevention: U. Iowa is comparing on- and off-road ATV crashes, one related to injuries and one to fatalities. According to Denning, on-road ATV incidents account for over 60% of fatalities and around 30% of serious injuries. She said there is also survey data from children and adults in Iowa indicating a lack of knowledge about ATV road-use laws and about the increased danger of ATVs on the road.
“Although knowledge of laws does not guarantee compliance, certainly total lack of knowledge likely contributes to at least some high-risk behavior, particularly parents allowing children on the road,” Ms. Denning noted.
TSI hopes to bring together researchers, advocates, physicians and public health experts from around the country to examine and devise workable strategies for reducing child ATV injuries.
The Massachusetts law may be a model for some states, but it may not be a feasible goal in others. Applying practical and sound practices that can reduce childhood ATV injuries in lieu of banning child ridership in all states may be what’s needed to stem the flow of injuries.