Most industries don't respond to a complaint from their regulators by producing an interactive color CD-ROM video game for kids called "ATV Rally."

But when the industry makes dirt bikes--more properly known as all-terrain vehicles--the fast action, trail rides and road rallies of the video are just the ingredients to hold the attention of the youthful target audience while providing safety tips, its creators say.

Regulators at the Consumer Product Safety Commission praise the voluntary safety program, which will start next month and include printed materials for 22,000 schools and CD-ROMs for 8,000 libraries and all new purchasers. Consumer advocates question whether the campaign serves as a clever marketing tactic as well a safety primer.

The program was developed over the past two years by American Suzuki Motor Corp., Arctic Cat Inc., Kawasaki Motors Corp., Yamaha Motor Corp. and Polaris Industries Inc. to replace a 10-year consent decree between the industry and the CPSC that expired in 1998.

That decree banned the sale of three-wheel ATVs. It also required a training program for purchasers, advertising and labeling on the hazards of ATV usage, and age recommendations so children wouldn't ride vehicles that were too big for them.

The CPSC pressed for the original agreement after reports of deaths of young riders, mostly on three-wheeled ATVs. The agency estimates there have been more than 3,200 ATV-related deaths since 1985, though the number has declined recently. There were an estimated 269 deaths in 1996, down from 350 in 1986.

There are nearly 4 million ATV owners in the country, and 90 percent of the riders are male. The new four-wheel bikes cost between $2,500 and $7,000 and sell at the rate of about 500,000 a year.

The manufacturers estimate that 60 percent to 70 percent of ATV households have computers that could use the new video game. They also hope schoolteachers will use the printed materials, produced by Lifetime Learning Systems, a division of Weekly Reader Corp.

The CD-ROM features riders Ben, Eric and Maya, who serve as guides on six electronic trail rides. "Our goal was to reach kids in a new way," said David P. Murray, counsel for Yamaha. "Kids can spend five minutes to an hour in it as well as having a blast on the trails."

The trail rides don't start until kids run through extensive safety information on choosing the right size bike and maintaining their bikes, he said. Besides being given to new purchasers, the video game will be available to current owners who call a toll-free number.

"The CD-ROM presented a challenge, as the game had to be engaging enough to hold the interest of kids used to sophisticated computer games but still convey important safety information," said Missi Tessier, an executive with Podesta.com, a public relations firm that the industry group consulted.

CPSC officials stress that what was true for the banned three-wheelers is also true for the newer four-wheel bikes: the younger the driver, the higher the risk. Thus, the agency has emphasized that any safety program should aim to keep kids from riding adult-size ATVs, while promoting training for youngsters.

Regulators, who worked closely with the industry group to develop the safety materials, said the new plan is stronger than the consent decree. When it was announced in the fall of 1998 as a successor to the decrees, CPSC officials went out of their way to commend the industry and endorsed the educational materials--a highly unusual stamp of approval.

"We wanted them to get into gear and emphasize safety," said CPSC Chairman Ann Brown. "We got them into overdrive." Brown said the CPSC will have to keep an "eagle eye" on what happens to injury and death totals under the new program.

A total ban on the vehicles, she said, was not a real-world option because they are used for work and transportation in rural areas.

American Honda Motor Co. decided not to participate in the voluntary agreement, maintaining that it wanted to take a fresh look at its safety campaign "after 10 years of being hard-wired into the consent decree. In some areas, we felt we had a better approach," said William Willen, managing counsel for American Honda.

For example, Honda decided to use a drawing, making buyers who complete a safety quiz eligible for a chance at the refund of their purchase price or a $28,000 car--a Honda, of course. It also has started an advertising campaign aimed at kids with the theme "Stupid Hurts" and will provide a video explaining the value of training to buyers.

Consumer advocates, who want to see the sale of the bikes to children banned, are not convinced any manufacturer's voluntary safety program will work.

"Who knows? The video game might be great, but if it doesn't translate into real behavior and they don't retain it, then that's what we're concerned about," said Mary Ellen Fise, general counsel of the Consumer Federation of America.

Fise said the materials the industry developed might be tools for marketing as well as for instruction. "You have to wonder if a secondary thing might be getting kids to ride ATVs," she said.

The federation, in its formal comments on the safety plan, chided the CPSC for heaping praise on a program that doesn't address training for used-bike owners and doesn't spell out enforcement procedures. It suggested that the plans be given "provisional acceptance."

Or, as Ben tells kids who ride off the trail, "Big Mistake. Be More Careful."

OUT FOR COMMENT:

As if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration wasn't under enough pressure this week as it withdrew controversial guidance on working at home, the agency also has received irate letters from 36 members of Congress criticizing it for offering only a 60-day comment period on a hotly debated ergonomics proposal it issued in November. "I do not believe that even an expert on ergonomics and OSHA law would be able to respond adequately to the rule in the time allotted," complained Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. Thompson asked for a 120-day extension to June 1, as did Reps. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.), John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) and Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.). Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) wants OSHA to wait until a third outside study on the issue is completed. The regulators already are on record saying no extensions.