Concerned about rising deaths and injuries from all-terrain vehicles, the Consumer Product Safety Commission yesterday announced it would step up its review of existing safety standards by launching an official rulemaking proceeding.

The announcement comes as the agency released the latest fatality and injury data on ATVs, linking the popular recreational vehicles to at least 6,494 deaths since 1982. About a third of those deaths have occurred since 2000, with annual reported deaths close to or above 500 for the last four years.

Children under 16 account for nearly a third of all fatalities and injuries. In 2004, nearly 45,000 children under 16 sustained injuries from ATVs, the commission estimated, up 16 percent from the previous high in 2003.

Commission Chairman Hal Stratton noted that the rate of deaths per user has dropped in the past few years as ATVs sales continue to increase. Even so, he added in a statement, "we are still witnessing noticeably higher levels of injuries and deaths among ATV users" that merit a more detailed study of safety options.

The agency's action comes nearly three years after a coalition of consumer, medical and environmental groups asked the CPSC to ban sales of new, adult-sized ATVs for use by children under 16. Earlier this year the commission staff recommended against such a ban, saying it would not stop adults from allowing children to ride.

The three-member commission usually agrees with its staff, but yesterday unanimously voted to defer a final decision on the coalition's request as it considers all aspects of ATV safety, including design and performance standards, pre-sale training and certification requirements and formal notification to buyers of safety rules.

Consumer groups that had pressed for the ban praised the agency's action as a significant step but expressed concern that there was no fixed timetable for a decision.

The Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, which represents major ATV manufacturers, said it would work with the commission, even though it asserted that most of the deaths and injuries come from improper use.

All-terrain vehicles use a trail through Utah's San Rafael Swell. New CPSC figures link ATVs to at least 6,494 deaths since 1982.