Legislators are considering a provision that would allow 6-year-olds to operate certain all-terrain vehicles.
By Rachel Herzog
In North Carolina, a child must be 8 years old and have parental supervision to operate a small all-terrain vehicle. If a provision of House Bill 765 passes, they could be first-graders when they start driving.
Currently, a North Carolina law passed in 2005 prohibits children under 8 years old from operating ATVs.
“The current standards were established after an 18-month study and a quite rigorous debate in both houses in the General Assembly,” said Tom Vitaglione, a senior fellow at child-advocacy group NC Child.
Between the law’s passage in 2005 and 2011, child ATV rider deaths fell by 59 percent, dropping from an average of eight deaths per year to five deaths, according to a report the North Carolina Child Fatality Prevention Team released in 2013.
“We felt that all of that process was really worth it, and the industry was part of that process,” Vitaglione said. “We think part of the reason why we dropped that by 59 percent was we got kids ages 6 and 7 off the machines.”
Vitaglione said the 8-year-old age restriction is a compromise between child health advocates and the specialty-vehicle industry.
“These machines are not easy to operate,” he said, explaining that engineers also recommend a more stringent age restriction. “They feel that younger people are not developmentally ready for the judgments that have to be made on these vehicles.”
The new proposed legislation is based on the national standard established by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which limits use of ATVs with larger engine sizes (a 70-cubic-centimeter displacement or higher) to children 12 and over, but considers those with smaller engine sizes acceptable for children ages 6 to 11.
“Our standards were different, which made it tough for the retailers to sell their equipment,” Sen. Andrew Brock (R-Mocksville) said. “In North Carolina, we’re just kind of tweaking what’s allowed to be sold and what the manufacturers are able to send here.”
Brock added that the ATVs 6- and 7-year olds would be allowed to operate would be small bikes that run slower than a two-wheeled bicycle or a 12-volt Barbie Jeep. The bikes manufactured for young children contain a restrictor plate that prevents them from going faster than 10 miles per hour and can be modified to increase the speed to 15 miles per hour.
“I can see parents getting more powerful equipment for younger bikers, which is more damaging, so this one’s kind of lining it up with the national standard,” Brock said, adding that he would be willing to drop the provision.
Vitaglione said the smaller bikes are still dangerous for young children.
“It also kind of loosens the way people think about things,” he said.
The new legislation would still require that children operating the ATVs be supervised, but Child Fatality Task Force Chair Karen McLeod said that’s not enough.
“While you may be able to watch the child or even ride with them, that risk is still in place,” McLeod said.
Vitaglione said he thinks a comprehensive study should be done before the legislation is passed, as was done before the current restriction was passed.
“It sounds dramatic, but we’re sort of betting on children’s lives here,” he said. “Why take any risk when all we have to do is slow down a few months and study this?”
The provision passed in the Senate and is waiting to be considered by the House.