Nov. 8, 2002 -- There are an estimated seven million all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) in use nationwide, but safety experts warn that when children take the helm, the 4-wheel all-terrain vehicles are risky and potentially deadly.
Built for speed, and designed with flair and finesse, all-terrain vehicles are also simply loads of fun to ride, enthusiasts say. "I like to fly through the air," said one 11-year-old ATV rider.
But safety groups and public health officials are concerned about the growing number of deaths and injuries being reported in connection with ATVs. And much of their focus is on the youngest riders of ATVs.
Nearly 200 Child Fatalities
ATVs are difficult to operate, can reach speeds of up to 75 mph, and weigh as much as 600 pounds. For a child, a fun ride can quickly turn catastrophic.
Tom and Susan Rabe's 11-year-old son, Kyle, was killed last May in Turner, Ore., when the adult-sized ATV he was riding rolled over on top of him.
"He was my best friend," Tom Rabe said of his son. "We did everything together."
The grieving mother said that he didn't know that the vehicle that his son enjoyed so much could be so dangerous.
"I mean it's our fault that we let Kyle ride, but who would have known, you know?" Susan Rabe said. "They look safe."
The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more than 174 children were killed last year on ATVs, and more than 34,800 were seriously injured. What makes these figures even more alarming is that 95 percent of children who have been hurt, were riding adult size ATVs at the time, just as Kyle Rabe was, the CPSC statistics say.
Safety Labels on Adult Machines
Liz Piper, an ATV industry spokesperson, said that manufacturers are concerned about the deaths and injuries.
"Its certainly not acceptable, that's why we are here talking to you today," Piper said.
ATV manufacturers say they are trying to keep kids off the big machines, with safety items like age-warning labels, brochures and videos. They also offer free training on smaller ATVs that are designed especially for children. The industry's safety position could not be clearer.
"Any child that is riding an adult size ATV is needlessly endangering themselves," Piper said.
ATV companies have also long promised the federal government that they will "not market, sell or offer to sell adult-sized ATVs to, or for use by, children younger than 16."
Salesmen Skirt the Rules
But when Good Morning America contacted and visited ATV dealerships around the country, producers found that some dealers aren't doing their part to keep that promise. Using a hidden camera, a television producer posed as a consumer looking to buy an ATV as a gift for a 14-year-old child.
One salesman immediately recommended that the producer buy the child an adult-sized ATV. The vehicle he suggested was almost four times larger than what the manufacturer recommends for children.
"This one is good, even like adults ride it," one salesman said.
"It's not too big for him?" the producer asked.
"No, it's not too big," the salesman responded.
A salesman at a second dealership also suggested an adult-sized ATV when a producer said he was looking for something for a child.
He told the Good Morning America producer not to worry, and said that his 13-year-old sister rides the same one.
"She rides it fine," he said. "She's been riding it since she's been 11."
At a third dealership, a salesman mentioned the age limits.
"They have age restrictions. If we know a 14-year-old is going to ride it, legally we can't do it," the salesman said.
But then he recommended a way to skirt the rules, and buy an adult-sized ATV anyway.
"Just purchase the vehicle as if you were purchasing it for yourself, and then let your nephew ride it," he said. All told, nine out of 10 ATV dealers contacted in person or by phone, recommended adult-sized ATVs for a child.
'It Breaks My Heart'
Piper said that she was disappointed about what happened at the dealerships.
"Well they definitely shouldn't do that, and it breaks my heart that they are," Piper said. "But that's only one of all the ways we try and get that good safety information out to people."
All the dealerships that Good Morning America visited later said that their salespeople made mistakes and were not following store policy.
Meanwhile, safety groups around the country are working to make it illegal for kids to ride adult-sized ATVs. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is accepting public comment on a petition on the issue, calling for age restrictions.
Tom and Susan Rabe hope Kyle's story will be enough to help other families avoid their pain.
"It was real hard to lose him," Tom Rabe said. "A big part of our life is gone."
Michael Corn produced this story for Good Morning America.