Three major national medical organizations have joined a politically charged public health controversy over the safety of off-road motorcycles.
The dispute focuses not just on the vehicles' safety but on federal officials' alleged failure to regulate them--a growing brouhaha replete with inter-agency investigations and allegations.
The crux is whether such vehicles can be safely operated or designed. This latest wave of controversy is developing against a backdrop of exponential increases in sales and popularity of all-terrain vehicles, which have become heavily used since about 1983. Two types are in question--those with three and four wheels--with the tricycle variety attracting by far the most concern.
The plot has thickened considerably just since the beginning of last week:
- The American Academy of Pediatrics, at its annual meeting in Washington, excoriated the Consumer Product Safety Commission for neither imposing a recall of all three-wheeled ATVs nor banning future production of such vehicles.
- The academy also urged manufacturers to agree to a voluntary moratorium on sales of ATVs until their safety engineering can be improved. Existing ATVs, the academy contended, should be operated only in daylight, never on unfamiliar terrain, never with passengers other than the driver, always with the driver wearing a crash helmet and never by anyone under 14.
- The General Accounting Office, the watchdog investigative arm of Congress, said it had begun an inquiry into possible "undue influence" by President Reagan's appointees to the Consumer Product Safety Commission on a commission task force. The task force in September issued a series of comparatively weak recommendations calling for greater public education on the dangers of ATVs and more warning labels on the vehicles themselves. The task force also urged voluntary removal from the market of small versions of such vehicles intended for use by children under 12.
- The GAO produced still another report that attempted to make sense of attempts by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to release a study that concluded ATVs are no more hazardous than small off-road minibike motorcycles and snowmobiles--a formal finding that would have been in concert with manufacturers' contentions. But the GAO concluded the report--whose release was eventually held up--was based on unscientific subjective conclusions by a handful of ATV dealers.
- An influential medical journal, the Annals of Emergency Medicine, published back-to-back articles in its November issue--one based on a detailed study of 169 all-terrain vehicle accidents, including two fatalities, near Palm Springs--that raise still more questions about safety of the three-wheelers.
The study from Desert Hospital in Palm Springs suggests engineering modifications that would probably be impossible to incorporate into existing ATV designs, according to the doctor who headed the research. A second study, from northern Minnesota, brands injuries caused by ATVs an "unrecognized epidemic" and urges tough state laws mandating a minimum age (14) for driving ATVs, safety training, use of crash helmets and outlawing driving ATVs after drinking.
These new developments have underscored the tripartite role of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Academy of Family Physicians in the ATV controversy. Within the last few weeks, the emergency physicians have urged states to enact ATV safety laws and the family practitioners have called for study of an outright ban on the vehicles or at least a limitation on their use to adults only.
Manufacturers steadfastly defend the safety of their products, and say they have no plans to pull ATVs from the market.
Between 1980 and 1984, sales of ATVs rose from 180,000 a year to 650,000 with estimates that total sales in 1985 amounted to 1.85 million. The vehicles were first sold for use in agriculture but today are most often employed recreationally in rough terrain. Government accident data link ATVs to 85,900 injuries a year at current rates and 559 deaths in the last five years--a third of which were children.
In a dry river bed outside Palm Springs, the controversy struck a familiar note with ATV enthusiasts themselves who agreed some action is necessary. Jim Veneglia, 26, Phil Clark, 26, and Paul Bright, 24, had spent the day on the sand dunes riding both three- and four-wheel ATVs. They agreed with a cross-section of motor vehicle engineering experts interviewed by The Times that the three-wheel variety is far less stable than its four-wheeled cousin but insisted that, with proper training, and avoidance of alcohol, the three-wheel variety is safe.