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Too young, too fast, too furious

Special to The Times

Dr. Larry Foreman was nearing the end of a long shift at Arroyo Grande Community Hospital when a bloodied 12-year-old boy in leather motorcycle pants staggered into the emergency room after crashing his all-terrain vehicle. The rider, who had been knocked unconscious, was cut across his face below his helmet.

Earlier that same day last fall, the doctor had treated two other riders, a 10-year-old boy with a gashed thigh and a 7-year-old girl with a broken wrist, injured at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area on the Central California coast.

"I said, 'This is nuts.' It really got me upset," Foreman recalls saying. "I have been a physician long enough that I felt an obligation to do something about it."

Now, Foreman has launched a one-man crusade seeking a law to ban children 14 years or younger from riding the popular three-wheelers and quad-runners on public land in California.

Though he has won support from the San Luis Obispo County Health Commission, he has become a lightning rod for off-road vehicle advocates, who say Foreman is trying to take away their right to ride. Foreman has also sought help from Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo), but the lawmaker so far is noncommittal.

Currently, youths 14 or younger can legally operate an ATV if a parent or guardian supervises. But Foreman says that does not adequately protect kids, and he wants lawmakers to enact tougher requirements.

The controversy is part of a larger national debate over ATV safety.

The powerful hill-climbing machines caused nearly 5,800 deaths between 1982 and 2003, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. One-third of the fatalities and injuries were children younger than 16.

In 2003, the last year for which statistics are available, 125,000 children were injured riding ATVs, and about 90% were kids operating adult-size vehicles.

Last month, the commission launched a comprehensive review of safety standards to determine whether new rules are needed to protect kids and other riders from the vehicles.

"We are working to make sure Americans are aware that ATVs are not toys. They are powerful machines," says commission spokesman Leonardo Alcivar.

Among the proposals the commission is considering: enhanced warning labels, new models designed for youths and written notification of child injury data at the time of sale.

Although riders agree safety is important, some question whether a ban such as the one Foreman proposes is overkill. They say it would penalize families that ride responsibly.

"ATVs are getting a terrible rap and, personally, I am fed up with it," says Jim Suty, a 38-year-old San Jose resident who grew up riding off-road vehicles and now rides with his young sons. "My children have been injured more climbing trees in the backyard. This is a tactic to end the sport."

An estimated 16.3 million Americans ride all-terrain vehicles, up about 33% over the last eight years, according to the product safety commission. Sales of new ATVs have increased steadily during the last decade, especially in California.

Manufacturers promote responsible use of the vehicles by offering incentives for buyers who complete a free safety training course.

According to the Irvine-based ATV Safety Institute, the majority of ATV crashes occur when riders speed, fail to wear a helmet or let children operate adult-size vehicles.

Ed Waldheim, president of the California Off-Road Vehicle Assn., says his group has been "educating the living heck out of people" by offering safety classes for parents and youths, and information about all-terrain vehicle laws.

Waldheim says he opposes any attempt to ban kids from riding, and he urges state park officials to enforce the laws.

"I hope they ticket them," Waldheim says. "The ATV is not a baby sitter."

At Oceano Dunes near Pismo Beach — the only California beach open to motorized recreation — six rangers police one of the most popular destinations in the state.

Each year, about 1.7 million people visit the 4-mile stretch of coast sculpted by wind and churning tires where families swim, camp and ride vehicles.

About 84,000 people stayed at the dunes during the Fourth of July weekend. Supervising Park Ranger Tony Villareal says despite the crowds, only 10 vehicle accidents were reported that weekend, none of them serious.

But serious accidents sometimes occur.

Last weekend, a 21-year-old Los Angeles man was killed while riding at the dunes after he hit his head and neck on the handlebars as he was ejected from the vehicle.

Villareal says no children have been killed while riding ATVs at the dunes since 1985, when the park started keeping records. A 5-year-old girl was killed 12 years ago while riding in a dune buggy with her parents.

Park rangers enforce the rules, but Villareal says that "with the kids, it's bravado. They want to do the jumps … and they tend to think that they can't get hurt."

Foreman has plenty of X-rays of shattered limbs that show otherwise.

After that day last fall in the ER when he treated the three injured youths, Foreman reviewed hospital records and discovered about 210 children had been treated at Arroyo Grande hospital for ATV-related injuries between January 2003 and October 2004.

He concluded that 147 children, ages 4 to 14, were injured at Oceano Dunes. Among the injuries: fractured wrists, a punctured lung and severe lacerations requiring surgery.

Suty, president of the Friends of Oceano Dunes, questions the doctor's findings and says most riders avoid injury. He says children comprise about one-fourth of visitors to the dunes, and the vast majority ride without incident.

"That works out to a 99.96% success rate," Suty says. "I wish the good doctor and everybody else would join hands with me and work on the 0.04%. But let's not punish the 99.96%."

Undaunted, Foreman continues to shop for a lawmaker in Sacramento willing to sponsor a bill.

"People say, 'Why are you doing this?' " Foreman says. "I'm doing it because I am sick and tired of seeing kids injured."

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