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Children and motorized bikes are a dangerous combination

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Tuesday, November 26, 2002

By Dr. Barbara E. Swan

In a recent article in Parade Magazine, third-ranked NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson said he began racing cars at age 15 because his father thought his first love, motocross, was too dangerous.

This bit of trivia caught my eye because I had been directing the rehabilitation of a 15-year-old boy who was in the intensive care unit as a result of a motocross/dirt bike accident while racing a 250cc bike. By the time he left the hospital a month later, he had spent more than three weeks, paralyzed and sedated, on a ventilator, and had lost a lung. This was his third dirt bike accident and second ICU admission in the past year.

Then I heard from the pediatric orthopedic surgeons about a 10-year-old who suffered six fractures in four extremities as the result of a dirt bike accident, shortly after a rod was removed from a fracture in his thigh bone that he sustained in a previous dirt bike accident.

What were these kids doing to themselves, and why were their parents permitting them to do it?

After doing some research, I was shocked to learn the number of children who ride and race dirt bikes. I found a Web site, www.dirtbikekids.com, that is "just for kids (4 to 15 years old) who love dirt bikes." The Racer Profiles page includes postings from children who began riding mini-bikes at age 3, and racing at age 4. My sons were still on tricycles at that age.

The American Motorcyclist Association sanctions competitions run under its official rules, covering Youth to Pro-Am classes. There are restrictions on engine size, from 0-51cc for Peewee Jr. class (ages 4-6) to 80-125cc for Schoolboy class (ages 12-15). However, riders age 12 and above may compete in Amateur classes, although they must be 14 to ride bikes over 250cc. The following warning appears in bold print several times throughout the 25-page rule book: "Motor vehicle mishaps, in competition or otherwise, can result in injury or death. Motor vehicles should never be used by minors without parental consent or supervision." I must confess I know little about the engine sizes of dirt bikes, but I would not allow my 12-year-old son to use a 250cc bike.

Surely such a risky sport must be regulated. What I discovered was the opposite. The manufacture of off-road vehicles is not regulated by federal motor vehicle safety standards. In 1987, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission entered a consent decree with ATV manufacturers in which the industry agreed to cease manufacture and sale of three-wheeled ATVs. In this consent decree, four-wheeled ATVs with engines more than 70cc could only be used by children 12 years or older, and more than 90cc by children 16 and older. However, these restrictions do not apply to two-wheeled vehicles such as dirt bikes. Notice how these restrictions on engine size compare to the motorcyclist association racing rules.

Laws regulating off-road vehicles vary by state. In Pennsylvania, helmet and goggles are not required for dirt bikes or ATVs. Riders must be 10 or older on public lands, and have rider education certification if younger than 16. There is no minimum age for riders non-public lands, and the rider does not need a license. The vehicle must be registered, but not inspected. Only two states, Connecticut and Iowa, have a minimum operator age -- 12. Several states other than Pennsylvania have age restrictions for riders on public lands only. Engine size is restricted by age of operator in three states. But most simply have no regulations on minimum age to operate an off-road vehicle, and many do not require a helmet or eye protection.

As far as I can tell, there is little information about the number of injuries associated with dirt bikes in general, or racing in particular. The American Academy of Pediatrics quotes statistics gathered by the safety commission between 1994 and 1996. During that time, approximately 40,000 injuries related to two-wheeled motorized off-road cycles were treated in emergency departments each year, of which 26 percent were sustained by children younger than 15. That's 10,400 injuries per year! Between 1990 and the first quarter of 1995, at least 50 deaths were reported. Forty-two percent of the victims were 16 or younger. Deaths were more likely to be associated with racing or jumping.

As physicians, parents, aunts/uncles, and concerned adults, we must call for closer study of injuries and deaths sustained by children and youth who ride and race dirt bikes. Football is a less inherently dangerous sport, but we know far more about safety and injury prevention on the playing field than on the race track.

A first step would be mandatory reporting of all injuries or deaths associated with off-road racing. We should also urge our state legislators to address this issue. Dirt bikes and their riders should be licensed, and riders should be required to wear helmets and eye protection. A minimum age for operation of all off-road motorized vehicles should be set. In June 2000, the Academy of Pediatrics published a policy statement calling for states to prohibit the use of motorized off-road vehicles by children younger than 16. It seems reasonable that children too young to safely drive a car are also too young to safely drive -- and race -- a dirt bike. In the meantime, we can educate young patients and their parents about the dangers of dirt bikes. We can teach them that these vehicles are dangerous and powerful machines, not children's toys.

Jimmie Johnson, the NASCAR racer, says, "You have to drive aggressively, but if you're too aggressive, you won't finish the race."

How can we reasonably expect a child to have the maturity to make such a judgment?

Dr. Barbara E. Swan is a physiatrist at Allegheny General Hospital. She can be reached at bswan@wpahs.org. This article was reprinted from the Sept. 28 Bulletin, published by the Allegheny County Medical Society.

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