While Nova Scotia's laws allow for children as young as six to operate all-terrain vehicles, the rules in place essentially forbid kids between six and 13 from doing so.

Under the Off-highway Vehicles Act, children are only permitted to ride on a closed course designed and maintained for off-highway vehicles.

"The problem that we have right now in Nova Scotia is there are none," said Barry Barnet, the executive director of the ATV Association of Nova Scotia.

His organization would like for there to be closed courses set up in the province.

Requirements for children to operate ATVs

Other conditions ATV operators between six and 13 face is to have completed safety training, be under adult supervision and for there to be a trained first responder present.

Despite these regulations, the reality is a different story.

"That's not what people are doing," said Shirley Burdock, the executive director of Injury Free Nova Scotia, a non-profit group working to reduce the rates of preventable injuries and injury-related deaths in Nova Scotia.

On Sunday, a five-year-old boy died after the ATV he was riding rolled over in a residential yard in Pictou County, pinning him underneath it. RCMP said he was operating the youth-model ATV by himself.

It's not clear what model the child was operating but youth-model ATVs can weigh as much as 130 kilograms.

Injury Free Nova Scotia was started in 2006 by Dr. Natalie Yanchar, a pediatric surgeon, who was "repeatedly in the challenging position of trying to save the lives of children and youth who had been in rollovers and such on ATVs … there were deaths that resulted," said Burdock.

Should minimum age be higher?

In 2012, Yanchar was the lead author on the Canadian Paediatric Society's position paper on ATV injury prevention, which recommended a minimum age of 16 for operating ATVs.

"Inexperience, inadequate physical size and strength, immature motor and cognitive development, and tending to engage in risk-taking behaviours all compound injury risks for children and youth operating ATVs," wrote Yanchar.

She said the risk of injury "is reflected in explicit vehicle manual warnings and the warning labels on current models, and evidenced by the significant number of pediatric hospitalizations and deaths due to ATV-related trauma."

Shirley Burdock

Shirley Burdock of Injury Free Nova Scotia says despite stringent rules surrounding ATV use by children, one of the big problems is that people aren't following the rules. (Submitted by Shirley Burdock)

Barnet said the association doesn't have an official position on whether the minimum age for ATV operation is appropriate.

"One of the things that we don't want to be is the parents for all of the children and we believe the families should make these kinds of decisions on behalf of their families," he said.

Burdock questioned whether it's safe for children to operate ATVs.

"We're still seeing really significant injuries and injury-related deaths because of youth operating vehicles that we would suggest there isn't a capability to operate safely," she said.

Motorcross included in legislation

The Off-highway Vehicles Act also applies to motorcycles. Former MLA Kevin Deveaux, who was part of the committee that amended the provincial legislation a decade ago, said motorcross groups lobbied for more freedom to ride, while Injury Free Nova Scotia pushed for a total ban for anyone under the age of 14.

He said the legislation was designed to ban kids from riding ATVs on trails but permit an exception for riding motorcycles or ATVs on closed tracks in supervised situations with an organization that could pay for first responders.

"That was the whole point of all this: Kids shouldn't be, literally, free-wheeling around back trails. But if you put it in a controlled area with a lot of safety checks in place, it gives them the chance to learn how to use these things before they turn 14 and are given a little more freedom," he said.

Province's position 

At the time, there weren't any established closed courses for ATVs. Deveaux said the message to ATV groups was to "organize yourselves and build those courses so the kids do have a chance to learn how to operate these vehicles safely under very controlled circumstances."

CBC News asked the province if it's looking at making changes to the minimum age and what it considers an appropriate age to operate an ATV.

"The current regulations do not allow youth under the age of 14 to operate an ATV unless on a closed course and there are no closed courses in the province," said Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Bruce Nunn in a statement. His department oversees the Off-highway Vehicles Act.

With files from Elizabeth McMillan