Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Friday, November 21, 2003
By Kirk Astroth

Last January, those of us in the Gallatin Valley were horrified when three young people and their driving instructor were killed in an accident near Manhattan. As a result, attention has been focused on driver’s education programs and the need for some national driver’s education standards.

At a recent community meeting, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration official cited statistics showing that teens make up only 6.6 percent of all drivers, yet account for 14 percent of all fatal accidents and 16 percent of all crashes (Chronicle, Oct. 29). Thousands are teens are dying each year in these fatal accidents.

While these statistics are certainly cause for concern, why aren’t we equally concerned at the thousands of children riding ATVs? Are they any less important? As a youth development specialist, I want to raise community awareness of this critical societal issue. Let me cite some statistics that should suggest that perhaps we need national standards in this area as well.

Since 1982 (when data were first collected), a total of more than 5,200 people have been killed in ATV-related accidents. The rate has especially increased since 1997. In Montana, 24 people have died in ATV-related accidents.

As just about everyone knows, ATVs are very popular with young people. Most ATV riders are using them for recreation, not work. Research shows that less than 20 percent of adolescents used ATVs for work purposes. And the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that in 2001, 15.7 million children under the age of 16 rode ATVs for a total of more than 2 billion riding hours. By far, most of these children (about 90 percent) rode adult sized vehicles labeled with warnings against their use by children.

While young people account for only 14 percent of all ATV riders, children under the age of 16 account for 37 percent of the total estimated injuries from 1985 through 2002 — more than double for their group. About 1,700 young people have been killed in ATV accidents since 1982. Over 720 of these deaths were children under the age of 12. That’s under 12 years of age. This is at least two years before youth can begin learning how to drive a car.

What’s the problem here? There are several. Rules for operating ATVs vary by state. Some have no restrictions at all while others require diver’s licenses or some sort of certificate. Often, there is little or no required training for youth riding ATVs. Certainly, there is no national training standard. Many children end up riding adult-sized machines as well — machines that are too big and on which they cannot reach all of the controls at the same time. This is a recipe for injury. Research has shown that for each percent increase in engine size, there is about an equal increase in risk of serious injury. Most riders do not wear safety equipment — helmet, gloves, etc. Many adults don’t model safe riding behavior — so why do we expect more of our kids?

In an effort to learn how to reduce childhood deaths and injuries on ATVs, the Montana 4-H Center for Youth Development and the Montana Social Norms Project at Montana State University examined a wealth of research on a broad range of risk-inherent recreational activities. Our review looked at activities like jet skis, snowmobiles, bicycles, skateboards, trampolines, sleds and toboggans, horseback riding, motorcycles, seat belt use and other activities. We searched for successful strategies that focused on getting parents to insist upon and model safe practices. We looked for programs that convinced young people to ride safely and/or wear safety equipment.

We found no such successful programs. In fact, the whole field is remarkable in its scarcity of any successful strategies to reduce childhood deaths and injuries. (By the way, the most dangerous piece of equipment you can allow your children to use is a trampoline. In just the last 10 years, trampoline injuries have tripled to nearly 100,000 reported in 1999 — compared to 38,000 injuries on ATVs. If you really care about the health and well-being of your children and your neighbor’s children, get rid of your trampoline.)

The Montana 4-H Center for Youth Development and the Montana Social Norms Project have now launched a collaborative research effort, funded by the National 4-H Council, to find ways to reduce childhood deaths and injuries from ATV use. Our research will be conducted in West Virginia, Louisiana and Utah — three states where ATV use is high and so is the accident rate.

The hope is that we will discover some approaches that can be successful in reaching youth and their parents to change behavior away from risk taking to safe riding. Riding an ATV does not have to be risky business. Doing nothing about it is.

Kirk A. Astroth is an Extension 4-H specialist at Montana State University’s 4-H Center for Youth.