In Placer County, where two young boys died Sunday after the child-sized all-terrain vehicle they were riding crashed into a pond, it’s not out of the ordinary to see children riding ATVs.
Sacramento-area ATV enthusiasts said they’ve seen children who start riding young go on to win races and championships. Retailers and vendors market the mini-ATVs to kids as young as 4 years old. A neighbor said her own children started on battery-powered vehicles at age 3.
But, experts said, what’s common may not be what’s safe.
Industry standards recommend against letting children under the age of 6 operate even the smallest gas-powered vehicles. And, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, about 150 children die in ATV-related accidents each year. Of those, more than 40 percent are younger than 12.
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On Sunday, it was 5-year-old Blake Cronkhite and 3-year-old Jayden Secrest.
The boys were riding together on a 50cc ATV in the driveway of a home in the 5100 block of Wise Road, part of the gated Crosswater community between Lincoln and Auburn, the California Highway Patrol said. The 5-year-old was driving, as the younger boy held on behind him.
It’s not clear how the boys got to the pond on the nearly 2-acre property or how fast they were going when they hit the water, CHP Officer David Martinez said. As of Tuesday, CHP investigators hadn’t spoken to the parents or found anyone who saw the boys go into the water.
“We have to look at everything,” Martinez said. “And there are still a lot of questions: How did the boys get out of sight? What happened that caused them to drive into the pond?”
Nobody has been cited or arrested, and, Martinez said, it’s unlikely anyone will be.
ATV use isn’t regulated on private property in California, although state law prohibits children 13 and under from operating an all-terrain vehicle on public land without adult supervision. Youths between 14 and 17 years old must either have an ATV safety certificate or be supervised by an adult who has the certificate on public land.
Tom Yager, the vice president of the Irvine-based ATV Safety Institute, said although children as young as 6 may be able to safely operate mini-ATVs, they shouldn’t be allowed to do so without proper training and vigilant supervision.
“You can teach kids what to look for when they’re riding and how to properly respond to certain situations – those skills are teachable,” Yager said. “Life is not without risk, but there are strategies that we can use to minimize those risks.”
Another way to minimize risk, Yager said, is never to get on the back of an ATV built for one person. This is common with small children, experts said, who are often put behind another child or put on a vehicle with an adult. It is unclear how many passengers the ATV Blake and Jayden rode was built to hold.
“When you have two riders on a one-person ATV, there isn’t a place for your feet and hand holds, and it makes it more difficult for the driver to shift their body weight around and maneuver the ATV properly,” he said. “You won’t be able to shift your weight to the back, for example. And (the passenger) may or may not be shifting with you.”
Other no-nos include riding without a helmet, riding on roadways and, for children, riding without adult supervision. According to the ATV Safety Institute, that means anywhere out of sight of an adult, though some experts recommend parents ride alongside their kids so they can get to them quickly should an emergency happen.
In California, children aged 6 to 18 can receive free hands-on training on ATVs provided by the Safety Institute in collaboration with the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Among the sites used for this kind of training is Prairie City State Vehicular Recreation Area in Rancho Cordova. Trainers provide kid-sized vehicles to children who don’t own their own, and make sure each child is riding an ATV appropriate for their age and size.
The age requirements, often ignored by parents and riders, are extremely important, experts said. Age designations indicate the size of the vehicle and are made with speed restrictions. A 50cc ATV, like the one Jayden and Blake were riding, will top out at 15 mph. In many models, parents can elect to limit the speed down to a maximum of 10 mph.
But, ATV researcher Charles Jennissen said, there’s little proof even those limited speeds are safe for small children.
“Youth-sized vehicles have speeds that are probably not even safe for them to go,” said Jennissen, who is also the director of pediatric emergency medicine at University of Iowa Hospitals. “There’s no indication that a child, at the ages they’re recommending, could handle those speeds.”
Troy McClintock, the membership chair for the California 4-Wheel Drive Association, said he’s seen children younger than 6 ride ATVs and other off-road vehicles with skill and precision. It’s up to the parents to know their children and what they can or can’t handle, he said.
“I think the parents need to be coherent of the ability of the kids,” McClintock said. “When you’re talking about kids that young (ages 3 and 4), you don’t leave them unsupervised. But if we coddle our children to not do anything, then they’ll tend to not do anything when they get older.”
Researchers dispute the idea that small children have the necessary mental and physical ability to safely operate ATVs, Jennissen said, adding children often struggle to react to constantly changing terrain and potentially life-threatening problems. No amount of supervision will stop accidents from happening, he said.
“A lot of times, when kids are going toward an obstacle, they’ll freeze and won’t let up on the throttle, or they’ll push down because they’re scared; the on-the-spot decision-making you need to drive these vehicles is not going to be there,” Jennissen said. “Even if they’re highly skilled, they’re going to be pushing the limits of what’s safe and that may put them in a lot of danger.”
Heritage Church in Lincoln, where Blake lived with his family, has set up a memorial fund for the two boys.
On Tuesday, Jayden’s father, William Secrest, mourned his son openly on his Facebook page, which photos and video of the 3-year-old boy riding a gas-powered ATV. His first solo ride, according to his father’s posts, was in January.
“I have to wake up and realize my Lil guy is gone forever,” Secrest wrote in a post Tuesday morning. “I’m so lost and so broken inside.”
Call The Bee’s Marissa Lang at (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter at @Marissa_Jae.
How to help
Donations can be made to Heritage Church by sending a check with “Cronkhite/Secrest” written in the memo line to PO BOX 1747, Lincoln, CA 95648, or dropped off at the church’s offices at 448 Lincoln Blvd. Donations can also be made online by visiting www.BlakeCronkhite.com or www.JaydenSecrest.com.