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Agency Won't Back Ban On ATV Sales to Minors

By Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2005; Page A08

The staff of the Consumer Product Safety Commission is recommending that the government not ban the sale of new, adult-sized all-terrain vehicles for use by children under 16.

Ruling against a petition from consumer groups and health professionals, the staff said a sales ban would be ineffective, even though its report said the risk of injury is high and the benefits of getting children off large ATVs could be substantial.

The popularity of all-terrain vehicles has been increasing, as have related injuries. (Jeff Barnard -- AP)

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"While the commission can affect to some degree how ATVs are sold, it cannot control the behavior of consumers or prevent adults from allowing children to ride adult-size ATVs," the staff said in a briefing paper released late Friday. A commission vote on the staff's findings is scheduled for March 22. The commission rarely votes against a staff recommendation.

ATVs have been linked to nearly 5,800 deaths since 1982; in the past four years for which figures are available, deaths have risen above 400 a year, with 407 fatalities posted in 2003. Of those, 111 -- or 27 percent -- were children under 16.

The popularity of ATVs has been increasing, with 6.2 million four-wheel vehicles in use in 2003, double the number in 1998. Injuries have been rising steadily every year, according to agency statistics. In 2003, there were 125,500 injuries, up from 67,800 in 1998. About 31 percent of those injured in 2003 were younger than 16, compared with 37 percent in 1998.

"We're concerned that the CPSC is turning a blind eye to the fact that each and every year more and more people are getting killed and injured by ATVs," said Rachel M. Weintraub, assistant general counsel of the Consumer Federation of America, part of the group that petitioned the agency for a ban in 2002. "We're profoundly disappointed with the staff's conclusions and reasoning."

Tim Buche, president of the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, which represents ATV manufacturers, said he hoped consumer groups would join with the industry "to effect changes to further reduce the number of accidents resulting from misuse of the product."

"Parents literally hold the key to their children's safety. Every ATV has an ignition key. When a parent or guardian controls the key, they control the use," Buche said.

The agency's staff said a ban would be impractical because it would affect only new ATVs, not the sale of used models, which account for about 37 percent of annual sales. According to the industry, 884,000 ATVs were sold in 2003, up from 447,000 in 1998.

A ban could also increase parents' costs because they would have to buy youth-sized ATVs, which have smaller engines, for children under 16. The smaller ATV costs between $1,800 and $2,500, while an adult model sells for between $2,000 and $8,000. "Some parents may not want to purchase a youth model for a 14-year-old when they think it may be physically small for the youth or may be outgrown within two years," the staff said.

Additionally, the report said, "some children (especially older children) may not want their parents to buy a children's model for their use, due to the possible peer stigma of having a 'child's' model," the staff said.

In 1987, the agency sued ATV manufacturers, declaring the vehicles an imminently hazardous consumer product. The suit was settled a year later, with the companies agreeing to stop selling the three-wheel ATV models the agency considered highly unstable. The companies also agreed to "use their best efforts to reasonably assure" that ATVs would not be purchased for a child's use.

Although that agreement expired in 1998, the industry has voluntarily continued a campaign to inform buyers of the dangers of children driving the adult vehicles. Yet the agency staff reported that undercover inspections of ATV dealers have shown a drop in compliance, with more dealers suggesting or recommending an adult ATV for a child. Compliance fell from 85 percent in 1998, when the agreement was in effect, to 60 percent in 2002 and 2003, but climbed to 70 percent in 2004, the staff said.

The effectiveness of a federal ban "would depend largely upon parents heeding the ban to a greater extent than they heed the current warnings" of the voluntary program, the staff said. It added: "There is little research to indicate that consumers would view a federal government warning as being more credible than other warnings."

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