Craig Howard of Clermont, Fla., knows firsthand how dangerous all-terrain vehicles can be.
His 15-year-old son, Blake, died in January 2001 when he hit a half-inch steel cable stretched across a Lake Placid orange grove while driving an ATV. Blake didn't see the cable because it was sheathed in clear plastic that had yellowed and blended in with the dead grass, his father said.
Howard, 52, still rides ATVs, but he no longer thinks they are OK for children younger than 16.
"They have no sense of responsibility when it comes to motor vehicles," said Howard, who is still grieving. "They really have no concept of the safety issues involved, especially at that age. They all think they're invulnerable. They all have a big red `S' on their chest."
Alarmed by an increase in ATV injuries, particularly among children, a consumer group is urging the Consumer Product Safety Commission to prohibit the sale of adult-size ATVs for use by children. The Consumer Federation of America also supports legislation that would ban children younger than 16 from operating ATVs.
The federation, Bluewater Network and the Natural Trails and Waters Coalition collaborated on a 2002 study, "All-Terrain-Vehicle Safety Crisis: America's Children at Risk." The groups concluded that ATVs, which can weigh up to 900 pounds and are capable of traveling faster than 75 mph, are most dangerous to children younger than 16.
"ATV use by children is not regulated in the common-sense manner applied to automobiles," the study said. "In this environment, the industry is allowed to push bigger, faster and more-dangerous machines while hiding behind a facade of self-regulation that has failed to protect consumers from injury and death."
A spokesman for the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, a manufacturers' group, said the answers are stricter parental supervision and measures such as staying off paved roads, not speeding and avoiding alcohol when driving an ATV.
"ATVs are as safe as the person operating them," spokesman Mike Mount said.
One of the more high-profile ATV crashes occurred near London in December, when rocker and reality-TV star Ozzy Osbourne, 55, was seriously hurt after his ATV hit a pothole and landed on him. He was in a coma for eight days and broke several bones.
In 2002, 357 ATV-related deaths were reported nationwide, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission statistics show.
ATV enthusiasts say their sport is fun and wholesome but has gotten a bad reputation because of a few people who don't wear helmets, ride drunk or carry passengers on the one-person vehicles.
"If you have any sense, you know you're taking a risk when you get on it, and it doesn't make any sense not to protect your brain," said Corey Williams, 27, of Eustis, a moderator at the ATVFlorida.com Web site.
The ATV Safety Institute, a nonprofit division of the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, promotes a number of safety initiatives, including a rider-training course. The manufacturers' group labels ATVs with warnings that discourage the use of adult-size machines by children younger than 16.
The organization opposes a federal ban, but representatives say they support state legislation to help keep children out of harm's way.
Rachel Weintraub, assistant general counsel of the Consumer Federation of America, said voluntary measures aren't enough.
"The industry is in charge of safety as well as working to sell as many vehicles as they can, and those two goals are obviously inconsistent," she said. "What we need to do is take the approach we've taken with cars - minimum age limits, licensing, testing."
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.