Oct. 28, 2010 — -- A new report by leading public health experts finds what is called an epidemic of serious injuries involving children who ride ATVs, the four-wheel all-terrain vehicles that are so popular in this country.
But efforts to protect children from ATV dangers have fallen short.
Last summer, 12-year old Brooke Scalise and her family booked a tour on ATVs on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.
Adults and children were all given full-sized vehicles, capable of speeds over 60 miles an hour. There was no problem on the flat sand of the beach, but then they headed up a steep road.
"And my daughter was ahead of me," recalled Brooke's mother, Jennifer, "and we rounded a bend and a very sharp turn and when I came around her best friend Emma was standing there screaming in the middle of the road."
Brooke had driven off a 200-foot cliff after missing a turn. Authorities later said Brooke had died on impact.
While Jennifer Scalise still primarily blames the Costa Rican tour company, she says she hopes Brooke's tragic death can serve as a warning to other parents about the inherent dangers of children on ATV's.
Said Scalise, "And I know we all think it's never going to happen to us, but it does and my life went from the most perfect nine days to complete hell in a matter of a split second."
Both the academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Surgeons recommend keeping all children under the age of 16 off all-terrain vehicles, also known as ATVs.
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But every weekend, across the country, thousands of children well under 16 take part in the increasingly popular and dangerous sport.
ATV Daredevils In Upstate New York
At a track in upstate Wallkill, New York, 11-year-old T.J. Albright told ABC News about the appeal of ATVs. "Most kids like it," he said, "because they see the pros coming up, like, whoa, that guy went super high, that guy went super far, and then, oh, mom, dad, I want to do that."
"They can go 60, 70 miles per hour, doing 30, 40 feet jumps," said Mark Monfeletto, parent of another young rider at the track. "You gotta be somewhat of a daredevil to do this."
Paramedics are stationed on the sidelines, waiting for the next victim. At a race attended by ABC News, a 16-year-old boy lost control of his ATV going over a jump. The track owner said the injured teen might have suffered several fractures but was not paralyzed.
Public health experts and emergency room doctors say it's an unacceptable risk with serious consequences. Dr. Larry Foreman, a veteran ER doctor in central California, ticked off a list of possible ATV-related complications. "Internal abdominal injuries, internal chest injuries, very bad lacerations, hed injuries. . . . It just kind of runs the gamut of various potential problems."
Dr. Foreman says children and teens simply cannot handle the power and the speed of adult-sized ATVs and even child-sized ATVs.
"Their first thing is panic," said Dr. Foreman. "They just don't have the maturity to understand what they should be doing when a severe situation presents itself."
Some of the ATV daredevils at the Wallkill track were barely old enough to ride a bicycle. Six-year-old McKenzie Richner, who rides a child-sized version, told ABC News that her favorite part of riding was "hitting the jumps."
The industry says there's nothing wrong with six-year-olds on ATVs, if they are not adult-sized machines.
Paul Vitrano, executive vice president of an ATV industry-funded safety group, told ABC News it "absolutely can be" safe for a six-year-old child to be on an ATV, "if the child has the motor skills and is able to understand instructions." Vitrano said he permitted his own son to begin riding a less-powerful, child-sized ATV at age 6.
"Everyone agrees the key is to keep kids off adult-sized ATVs," Vitrano said. But the ATV accident toll is climbing.
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From the most recent figures, public health experts estimate at least 150 children are killed and 4,000 hospitalized each year in ATV accidents. Since federal officials began tracking deaths from ATV crashes in the 1980s, about a quarter of the more than 10,000 recorded fatalities have been children under 16. A new study from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shows that the number of kids hospitalized for ATV injuries has more than doubled since 1996.
16-Year-Old Paralyzed in ATV Accident
As the quarterback of a Bakersfield, California high school football team, 16-year old Tyler Schilhabel played the game of his life this September, scoring two touchdowns and running for one.
Two days later he and friends went for an ATV outing at a nearby state beach, popular with ATV riders. Tyler and his ATV went over a 30 foot dune that did not have a backside, and when it landed on its front wheels, Tyler hit the front handlebars.
Schilhabel was paralyzed from the chest down.
"I looked down at my body and my legs were wrapped around the back tire," said Schilhabel, "and it just looked like my entire torso wasn't even connected to my chest, and I had no feeling or sensation."
Still optimistic, and working hard to walk again, Tyler remembers being worried that day about ATVs and safety.
Said Schilhabel, "Going into that weekend, I never really had a good feeling about it. I kind of felt something bad was going to happen. And I didn't know what it was going to be, but I kind of just had that gut instinct something was going to happen."
Schilhabel says he doesn't think teens should be prohibited from riding ATVs, but acknowledges he was worried about their safety as he was driving to the state beach where the accident happened. Satefy advocate Sue DeLoretto-Rabe of Concerned Families for ATV Safetysays her group "would like to see no child under the age of 16 on any sized ATV, period. We think they're just too dangerous and too fast and too heavy for any child to operate."
The ATV industry is now fighting proposals to ban anyone under the age of 16 from riding ATVS, claiming the industry has a better solution, making sure adult-sized ATVS are not sold for use by children.
But a Government Accountability Office investigation this year found seven out of ten retailers would sell the full power machines for use by children.
"Until we make laws prohibiting children under the age of 16 from riding ATVs," says DeLoretto-Rabe, "I truly believe they'll keep selling them and the ATV manufacturers will keep making them and they'll just keep getting their dollar, the bottom line."
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Some dealers have already begun to advertise ATVS as Christmas presents for five-year-olds.And while the child version may go slower than the adult models, safety advocates say they can still weigh around 200 pounds and up, enough to easily crush a skull or break a back.