LOS ANGELES — Last Mother’s Day, Jaret Graham, 14, climbed on the back of an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) driven by his 12-year-old cousin. As they sped down a paved stretch of country road in west Texas, the 12-year-old lost control, the vehicle went into a ditch and the cousin fell off, injuring his leg. Jaret was thrown off and hit his head on a cattle guard, a barrier made from steel pipes. He died instantly.
ATV accidents such as this — on roadways, rather than trails — are widespread and have increased in recent years. The latest U.S. figures indicate that ATV crashes kill more than 700 people and injure 100,000 every year, with nearly two-thirds of the fatal accidents occurring on public or private roads.
The accidents keep happening even though all ATVs sold in the United States carry a warning label that says the vehicles are not to be driven on the road: Their high center of gravity and low-pressure tires mean they’re likely to tip over or go out of control on pavement. What’s more, the vehicles aren’t held to federal safety standards for cars and trucks, such as the requirement for seat belts, even though they can reach highway speeds.
Nevertheless, a push is under way in states, counties and towns across the country to open more roads to ATVs. Last year alone, three states passed laws that gave authorities the power to open certain public roads to ATVs. Since the beginning of 2012, local governments in at least 18 more states have opened specified roads to ATVs or have considered such a move.
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“We are moving backward on this issue,” said Rachel Weintraub, the legislative director and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America.
While the Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates hazardous products and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration oversees traffic safety, neither federal agency has authority over where people ride ATVs.
News accounts provide a litany of deadly accidents:
• In August, Andrea Allen, 22, was carrying three toddlers on an ATV in Center Point, Ind., when she veered off the pavement and went into a ditch. The vehicle caught fire, and Allen and two of the toddlers, one of whom was her son, died.
• That same month, 11-year-old Chase Roush was killed when the ATV he was driving on a road in Racine, Ohio, crossed the centerline and hit an oncoming car.
• In October, Tony Stacy, 52, died near Bakersfield, Calif., when his ATV collided with a pickup.
• The following week in North Plymouth, Mass., 25-year-old Joseph Vandini was killed when he lost control of the ATV he was driving. He crashed into a curb and a tree and was thrown through a tattoo parlor’s plate-glass window, causing fatal head injuries.
Safety advocates fear that accidents such as these will become more common as efforts to open more paved surfaces to ATVs gain traction. Last summer, Washington state passed a law that allows ATVs on roads with speed limits of 35 mph or lower in seven rural counties with fewer than 15,000 residents.
The law also gave counties and municipalities in the rest of the state the power to decide whether to do the same. State lawmakers were also considering a bill that would allow counties to open roads with higher speed limits to ATVs.
Federal rules possible
“It’s a very unfortunate trend,” said Robert Adler, acting chairman of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is studying ATV safety with the aim of possibly writing new regulations governing the design of the vehicles. ATVs are getting bigger and more powerful, he said, “taking a machine that is quite dangerous and increasing the hazards.”
The agency has worked on a new ATV safety rule since 2006, and officials aren’t saying when it might be issued. Speaking hypothetically, Adler said the rule might bring changes that included redesigning seats to make it more difficult to carry passengers, making the vehicles more stable or setting upper limits on the speeds ATVs can travel.
Most states still prohibit ATVs from streets, often with exceptions for farmers or others who use the vehicles for work or for riders of trails that cross roads. But riders groups and local ATV clubs have made headway by arguing that opening more roads to ATVs will draw tourists and provide residents with a cheap way to motor around.
Public-health advocates say such moves undermine safety messages and confuse the public. “They think it will bring increased tourism revenue to various states and jurisdictions, but at what cost?” asked Weintraub.
Sue DeLoretto-Rabe, an Oregon resident who co-founded Concerned Families for ATV Safety after her young son died in an ATV crash, says the industry should take a more proactive stance against the new spate of laws.
She was disappointed when the industry stood by and let riders groups defeat a bill that would have banned children under 12 from using ATVs in her state. “In reality, they’re all about selling ATVs,” she said.
The Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, a trade group that represents ATV manufacturers, doesn’t have a lobbying budget that specifically targets the issue, but Paul Vitrano, executive vice president and general counsel, said the organization often sent letters to lawmakers who were considering bills to open roads to ATVs. In Washington state last year, its lobbyist hand-delivered such letters.
A recent study from Iowa suggests the safety message is not reaching riders. The Iowa ATV Injury Prevention Taskforce surveyed 4,300 children from 2010 to 2012 and found that 75 percent of those who’d been on ATVs had ridden on public roads.
Rocky Graham, Jaret’s father, said he worried that opening roads to ATVs would put more kids in risky situations that they didn’t have the judgment to handle. “When your kid gets on that four-wheeler and you’re not around, if he’s 12 he’s going to think like a 12-year-old.”
A version of this story appears on FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit news organization focused on public-health, safety and environmental issues.