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Even before last weekend's tragedy in South Georgia, when five children riding on a four-wheeler died in a collision with a motorist, the American Association of Pediatrics was calling for a ban on children riding all-terrain vehicles.
Today child and consumer advocates are redoubling pressure for greater controls.
"In this country we've seen an epidemic of ATV-related injuries to children, and that trend is continuing to escalate," said Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. "If this was West Nile virus, this would be on front pages. It would be an outcry."
Last month, the country's largest association of pediatricians joined with consumer and environmental groups in a petition before the Consumer Product Safety Commission seeking to ban children from ATVs.
The CPSC sponsored several hearings on ATVs in West Virginia and Alaska but hasn't yet responded to the petition.
"We're trying to find best solution to problem," said spokesman Mark Ross.
The children in Coffee County, ages 10 to 14, apparently compounded the risks of riding by piling more than one rider on the vehicle, riding without protective equipment, using an adult-size ATV and riding on a public road, all of which are specifically discouraged by manufacturers.
But even when they are used appropriately, all-terrain vehicles can be deadly for children. More than half of the Georgians killed on ATVs during the 1990s were 16 years old or younger, according to statistics from the CPSC.
Nationally, injuries from accidents involving ATVs have doubled since 1997, rising to 111,000 a year; some 33,000 of those injuries were suffered by children. Injuries and deaths will continue to rise as sales increase and the machines become more powerful, consumer advocates say.
"Clearly the voluntary approach to safety is not working," said Rachel Weintraub of the Washington-based Consumer Federation of America.
All-terrain vehicles range from child-size runabouts with relatively small engines to quarter-ton racers that can reach speeds of 75 miles per hour.
There are few statistics about ownership in Georgia, though industry estimates suggest about 5.5 million ATVs are in operation throughout the country.
Though they are barred from public roads, ATVs can be driven on private property and on some public trails in national forests. They are a familiar sight throughout the state; hunters use ATVs to shorten their hikes, and farmers often keep one on hand for chores.
Steve Lowe, a salesman at Jasper Jeep, said he trailers his Arctic Cat 300 up to Virginia for deer hunting and also rides on family property in Dawson and Lumpkin counties.
His older son, now 27, drove a smaller ATV with a 70 cubic centimeter engine when he was 10, always with helmet and kneepads and strict supervision. "He was 13 or 14 before he was allowed to ride out in the yard by himself," said Lowe.
Mike Mount, a spokesman for the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, which represents manufacturers and dealers, said dealers already warn shoppers not to give adult-size machines to children, as do prominent stickers on the four-wheelers, fliers, hangtags and notes in the owner's manual. A dealer who does otherwise can lose the franchise.
Buyers are also given cash incentives to get training, though only a small percentage take any kind of training.
Mount's organization has called for the states to regulate ATV use --- Georgia currently has no age limits or licensing procedures --- and for stricter parental control, rather than a federal ban.
"Every ATV has a key, and a parent controls the keys," said Mount.
Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution