October 15, 2010 -- All-Terrain Vehicles, or ATVs, can be heard buzzing through woods and fields across America all summer long, as outdoor enthusiasts from seven to 70 enjoy getting close to nature on the three and four-wheel machines. More than half a million are sold in the U.S. each year, and they've also become popular vacation rentals.
But the thrill of the ride can come at a heavy price. Since federal officials began tracking deaths from ATV crashes in the 1980s, more than 10,000 people have died. About a quarter of those fatalities have been children under 16. A new study also shows that the number of kids hospitalized for ATV injuries has soared since 1996. Safety advocates are pushing for nationwide laws that would keep children off ATVs, but right now few states bar kids under 16 from operating full-size vehicles.
On this week's episode of Brian Ross investigates, we hear from a Missouri mother whose daughter's death on an ATV has led her to push for a change in the law.
Jennifer Scalise of suburban St. Louis took her 12-year-old daughter Brooke to Costa Rica in the summer of 2009. "We were having absolutely a dream vacation," recalls Scalise. "In a matter of minutes, it went from the dream vacation to the greatest nightmare that any parent can ever go through."
Scalise and her family and friends were on an ATV tour along Costa Rica's Pacific Coast. According to Scalise, the tour operator had allowed guides under the age of 18 to lead the group, and they were traveling at high speed along a cliff top path without guardrails. As the pack rounded a sharp turn, Scalise heard a scream from her daughter's friend up ahead.
Brooke had plunged off a 200-foot cliff. "There was something in my heart that just told me she was gone," said Jennifer Scalise. "When you looked over the cliff, you just saw the ocean." When Scalise made it down to the beach, where her daughter lay dead, she said she began begging bystanders "just knock me out. I mean I literally threw myself in the ocean."
ATV Laws Vary State To State
A year later, Scalise said she no longer blames the young guides, but wishes the tour operator, who is still in business, could be held accountable. Costa Rican law does not permit underage riders on ATVs, but is routinely ignored and unenforced.
In the United States, laws governing ATV riding vary from state to state, but only a handful of states currently prohibit kids under 16 from using adult models. This month Massachusetts passed what safety advocates, including Concerned Families for ATV Safety, hail as the toughest law of its kind in the country. It bars kids under 14 from operating ATVs, but critics say more needs to be done.
Scalise, a member of Concerned Families for ATV Safety, said she believes "there's absolutely no circumstance where a child under 16 years old should ever be on an ATV like this. They just, in my opinion, don't possess the strength or the knowledge."
Just prior to the Costa Rica trip, said Scalise, Brooke had been told by a tour operator in San Francisco that at 90 pounds she wasn't big enough to ride a Segway – she wasn't heavy enough to stop it.
"If only I had known [about ATVs]," said Scalise. "If only someone had told me this. If only someone had maybe made me create a little bit of awareness to the dangers of these things."
The ATV industry supports strengthening restrictions on ATV use by children. It advocates keeping children under age 16 off of adult-sized ATVs, and advises that all riders under 16 be supervised by adults.
Brian Ross Investigates
Also on Brian Ross Investigates this week, US officials have said that suspected terrorists have excellent operational security, and have become savvy about computer programs designed to help users hide their activities. Published reports in Germany say a captured German suspect has told interrogators he and others were trained in the use of several different encryption programs, one especially designed for jihadis.
The ongoing terror alert in Europe, and the possibility of a Mumbai-style commando attack on a major city, led the New York police department to conduct a what-if drill this week. This week's Brian Ross Investigates includes footage from a drill in which the NYPD simulated a terror assault by multiple assailants with bombs and firearms in Manhattan's financial district.
"Brian Ross Investigates" is a weekly 30-minute investigative news magazine show that features exclusive interviews, undercover videos and extended investigations and story updates. It airs every Friday on Hulu.com and ABC News Now, the network's 24-hour news channel available throughout the U.S. and Europe, at 1:36pm. Each show is also available on mobile devices, including the iPhone and iPad.
Viewers can submit videos and personal thoughts on controversial issues and current topics through Facebook and Twitter, including the "Skype Gripe" segment, in which viewers are invited to interact with Ross about recent investigations.
This week is the 28th episode of "Brian Ross Investigates." All shows are archived on Hulu for viewing.