Child and teen ATV injury rates reduced by off-road vehicle restrictions, U.S. doctors say

Far fewer children and teens were seriously injured after a U.S. state law was introduced restricting the use of all-terrain vehicles, doctors say.

Massachusetts law requires adult supervision for ATV riders under 18

A Massachusetts law limiting the size of ATVs that can be operated by children and requiring adult supervision and training is credited for reducing injuries. (Scott Sommerdorf/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Far fewer children and teens were seriously injured after a U.S. state law was introduced restricting the use of all-terrain vehicles, doctors say.

In 2010, Massachusetts introduced "Sean's Law" in honour of eight-year-old Sean Kearney, who died when an all-terrain vehicle he was riding on overturned.

In Monday's issue of the journal Pediatrics, senior author Dr. Peter Masiakos of the pediatric surgery department at MassGeneral Hospital for Children and his team found that after the law was implemented emergency department discharges at their hospital declined among children and teens.

The law banned children 13 and under from riding an off-road vehicle unless "directly supervised by an adult on parent's land" while preparing or participating in a race or rally approved by a municipality. Previously, children as young as 10 were allowed to drive an off-road vehicle. 

The researchers found that between 2002 and 2013 there were 3,638 discharges from emergency departments and 481 inpatient discharges.

After the law, emergency department discharges decreased 33 per cent for children ages nine and under, 50 per cent for ages 10 to 13 and 39 per cent for ages 14 to 17.

The four different age groups studied with lighter bars representing pre-law and darker after. The 14-17 year-old-age group still has the highest bars, which represent the highest population-based rate of emergency department visits, said Dr. Michael Flaherty. (Pediatrics)

In comparison, there was no significant decline among 25- to 34-year-olds.

The greatest decline in injuries was among 10- to 13-year-olds, the group most affected by the new law, the researchers said.

"Our results are the first to show substantial reductions in pediatric injuries after the passage of a state law with an age restriction that included all children up to age 14 on both public and private lands," the study's authors wrote.

Children under 16 are 12 times more likely to be injured on an ATV than their adult counterparts, said study co-author Dr. Michael R. Flaherty, an attending physician in pediatric critical care medicine at the hospital. 

Those aged 14 to 17 continue to be disproportionately injured while operating off-road vehicles in the state, Flaherty said. 

"This is somewhat expected, since the Massachusetts law allows them to ride with engine size restrictions and required education, but does not outright ban them from driving as professional societies would recommend," he said in an email. 

The authors say regulations should contain a minimum age requirement of 16 years, as the American Academy of Pediatrics and Canadian Pediatric Society have urged. The physicians say children under 16 lack the knowledge, physical size, strength and cognitive and motor skills to operate the vehicles safely.

The study was based in just one state, with lower rates of off-road vehicle use than other states.

The researchers also acknowledged they weren't able to exclude injuries related to motocross or dirt bikes, though better data will be available this fall. They plan to continue to study the effect of the law and its sustainability.

Industry efforts have emphasized the need for training and helmets.   

Previous studies suggest small, slower vehicles are associated with reduced injury and death risk in children.