Young riders long have made up a big share of the people killed in all-terrain vehicle crashes. As FairWarning reported in March, 2010, children under 16 accounted for more than 2,500 of the 10,000-plus fatalities recorded in ATV accidents since federal authorities started keeping track in the 1980s.

But the reason why so many kids are killed or badly hurt has been fuzzy. For instance, is it because young riders take too many chances?

Now a team of emergency room doctors and medical researchers from Illinois has pointed to a cause. In a study published in Neurosurg Focus, the team concluded that size matters: young riders all too often aren’t big enough or strong enough to control an ATV designed for an adult.

The researchers performed tests with two ATVs, a Polaris Trailblazer 250 sport model and a Honda FourTrax 250 utility model. They studied riders of varying heights, weights and arm lengths during three maneuvers linked to crashes.

The researchers’ concluded that lighter riders often are more easily ejected, and that riders with shorter arms are less able to maintain an ATV’s stability to prevent rollovers.

The study concluded that lighter riders with “small wingspans” — in other words, children and others of small stature — “are under considerable risk of injury when operating an ATV due to lateral, longitudinal, and vertical operational instability.”

ATVs, as the study said, typically weigh 300 to 600 pounds and can travel up to 75 miles per hour.

However, as motor vehicle safety specialists  Safety Research & Strategies Inc. noted in their review of the study, regulations for child ATV riders are limited. The company noted that Massachusetts in July, 2010 became the first state in the nation to ban children under age 14 from riding ATVs, unless they are participating in an organized race or an event supervised by someone 18 years or older. Still, Safety Research & Strategies said the state “has done little” to enforce or publicize that or other provisions of the law.

At the federal level, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission requires manufacturers to take steps to stop their dealers from marketing adult-size ATVs to children.

Senior officials of the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, an industry group that deals with safety issues and operates the All-Terrain Vehicle Safety Institute, could not be reached for comment on the study. A representative of the institute, however, said it puts a high priority on rider safety and is well aware of the issues involving young riders.

The Illinois researchers cited Consumer Product Safety Commission research reflecting the rising toll taken by ATVs. The research showed that, among other things, the number of ATV riders climbed 36 percent from 1997 to 2001 but the number of injuries treated in hospital emergency rooms leaped 109 percent.

ROBERT T. NELSON

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