TUESDAY, July 2, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Safety experts have long warned that all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs, pose serious threats to kids, who may not have the strength or judgment to safely operate the bouncy, heavy machines.
Now a new study is putting some fresh numbers to those concerns.
The study estimates that over the past decade, more than 360,000 U.S. kids were treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries related to riding ATVs.
ATV injuries to children aged 15 and younger peaked in 2004, at an estimated high of 67 per 100,000 kids. But injury rates have been dropping since then, falling by more than one-third between 2004 and 2010.
Those findings mirror a March report from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission that found a decline in ATV injuries among riders of all ages between 2010 and 2011. In 2011, the report notes that 57 children younger than age 16 were killed in ATV crashes.
"The good news is that the injuries seem to be declining, but I think we really can't take comfort in that," said Dr. Gary Smith, a pediatrician who directs the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
"This remains a major problem nationally," said Smith, who was not involved in the study.
Researchers agree. They don't think the drop can be chalked up to greater improvement in safety or awareness of the dangers of ATVs to younger riders.
Instead, they think the decrease is probably due to the recession, which slowed ATV sales and tightened spending on gas. Motor vehicle crashes show similar declines during economic downturns simply because people don't drive as much.
"That's our best guess," said study author Ruth Shults, a senior epidemiologist with the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"It looks as though, for the year 2012, fatal traffic crashes increased over 2011. So we may be seeing, at least, an increase in traffic injuries and it may portend an increase in ATV injuries. We'll just have to monitor the data and see," Shults said.
For the study, published online July 1 and in the August print issue of Pediatrics, Shults and her team combed through the emergency department records of 66 hospitals around the United States. They counted injuries to kids aged 15 or younger who were hurt while riding ATVs. They left out any cases where kids were injured while others were riding (for example, if they were being pulled behind the vehicle in a sled).
Boys were about twice as likely to be injured on ATVs as girls. Teens and preteens aged 11 to 15 had the highest rates of injuries of any age group. They made up about two-thirds of all ATV injuries to children 15 and younger.
Broken bones, scrapes and cuts made up more than half of the injuries reported in the study. Nearly 30 percent of all injuries to children up to age 5 were to the face, head or neck.
Most children with ATV injuries, 86 percent, were treated and released from the emergency room. But 13 percent were hurt so badly they had to be hospitalized. That means kids are twice as likely to be hospitalized if they're injured riding an ATV than if they're hurt in a car crash.
Shults says if parents do choose to let their kids ride on ATVs, some rules may help make them safer.
First, because most ATVs are built to hold only one rider, kids should never be passengers.
She said kids should also be warned not to ride an ATV on a paved surface.
"Riding on paved roads actually increases the chance that the thing will roll over. The tires on ATVs are very low pressure so that they can give on uneven terrain, because they're supposed to be ridden off-road, so when you put them on the road, that makes them tippy," she said.
And last, if kids are going to ride on an ATV, parents should go along to supervise. "Supervision is really the key," Shults said.
But some experts feel those measures don't go far enough.
"I've treated just devastating injuries to children who have died on ATVs. I've unfortunately had to face the parents and tell them that their child has a devastating traumatic brain injury and we're not sure what kind of future your child is going to have. I've had to tell them that their child is dead," said Smith, who is an emergency medicine specialist. "I feel very strongly that children should not be on them, period."
The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees. They recommend that parents keep kids off ATVs until at least age 16.
For more about the dangers of ATVs to kids, head to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.