Last Mother’s Day, Jaret Graham, 14, climbed on the back of an all-terrain vehicle 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.
“We are moving backward on this issue,” said Rachel Weintraub, the legislative director and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America.
ATVs are not supposed to be driven on highways in South Carolina. The All-Terrain Vehicle Safety Act of 2011 says a vehicle that is licensed and titled for highway use isn't an ATV.
A bill introduced last year, H.3353, would make it legal to drive an ATV within four miles of the owner's home on secondary roads with speed limits of up to 35 mph. But that bill has gone nowhere since being assigned to the Education and Public Works Committee.
The 2011 law also makes it illegal for parents or guardians to allow any child younger than 6 to drive an ATV, anyone younger than 16 to drive an ATV while carrying a passenger and anyone younger than 16 to ride an ATV without a helmet.
But there are exemptions from those regulations for ATV use by employees and family members on private property for farming or hunting activities.
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 center line and was hit by 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. The law also gave counties and municipalities in the rest of the state the power to decide whether to do the same. Now state lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow counties to open roads with higher speed limits to ATVs.
Lawmakers in Missouri and Michigan gave local governments similar discretion last year. An Iowa measure backed by riders groups that would have opened country roads across the state to ATVs stalled in committee, but local initiatives are moving ahead. Local jurisdictions in Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin have considered or approved such actions since the beginning of 2012.
“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.
Rural Tippecanoe County, Ind., is considering opening more country roads to ATVs. Jay Jackson, executive director of American Bikers Aimed Toward Education of Indiana, a motorcyclists’ rights group that also represents off-road riders, has spoken in favor of the measure. He said accidents often involved alcohol use or reckless riding, and that risks could be managed through education and regulations such as requiring driver’s licenses, as Indiana law does. “We’re not suggesting you see these in downtown Chicago driving around and mixing with taxis,” he said.
The companies that make the machines say they disagree. “Off-highway vehicles are not designed to be ridden on roads,” said Paul Vitrano, executive vice president and general counsel for the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, a trade group that represents ATV manufacturers.
Vitrano said his group “vigorously opposes” efforts to open roads to ATVs. However, the manufacturers want to remain on good terms with rider groups, and some critics have questioned how hard they to try to discourage on-road use of ATVs.
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 similarly 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 institute doesn’t have a lobbying budget that specifically targets the issue, but Vitrano 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.
In addition, the organization operates a nonprofit called the ATV Safety Institute, aimed at teaching safe riding, including staying off roads.
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 didon’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.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote which has since been removed from the story.