Makers of all-terrain vehicles promised to monitor dealers to prevent the sale of powerful adult model ATVs to kids under 16. But an undercover investigation by the Government Accounting Office suggests self-policing isn’t working.

In a report Thursday on safety issues with ATVs, the GAO said investigators visited 10 dealerships in Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, posing as buyers seeking to purchase adult-size ATVs for children of 12 or 13. Seven of the dealers were willing to make the sale.

Off-roaders crest a dune at Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area. (Myron Levin/FairWarning)

ATV producers pledged to police dealers when they settled a lawsuit by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in the late 1980s. They renewed the commitment years later in action plans filed with the commission. But according to the GAO, the commission stopped doing spot checks of dealers in 2008, even though compliance with age restrictions had fallen from 85 percent in 1999 to 63 percent in 2007, and despite the entry of many new dealers between 2008 and 2010.

Age restrictions are critical, officials say, because most childhood deaths and injuries involve kids riding adult machines. The report said the commission has agreed with the GAO recommendation to resume inspections of dealers.

Paul Vitrano, executive vice president of the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, the main trade group for ATV manufacturers, told FairWarning the group encourages all dealers to follow the guidelines.  ”Adult ATV models are designed for adults only, and should not be sold for use by youth” he said.  ”A  rider only should operate an ATV that’s right for his or her age. ”

The safety of ATVs has been a concern for years.

The GAO noted that of 1,941 documented ATV fatalities from 2006 through 2008, 341 of those killed, or about 20 percent, were kids under 16. While some safety advocates question whether children should ride ATVs at all, youth-sized models are designed to be safer for kids. They are slower, less powerful, come without headlights to discourage nighttime riding and weigh less than adult-sized vehicles.

When GAO investigators told dealers they were trying to buy an ATV for a child, sales staff at two dealerships told them to return the next week and say the ATV was for an adult. Another salesperson coached the investigator to say the ATV was for a 16 year old.

Read a summary of the GAO report or the full report here.