MORGANTOWN -- A national dialogue on all-terrain vehicle regulation that started in Morgantown Thursday zeroed in on such prickly issues as parents' right to raise their children as they see fit vs. the government's role in helping children survive to adulthood.
"Sure, we think that parents have responsibilities, but so does the federal government," said Rachel Weintraub, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.
She was the initial speaker in a daylong federal field hearing conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The commission, which took action that ultimately eliminated the manufacture of three-wheeled ATVs in the 1980s, is considering the federation's request for a ban on sales of adult-sized machines for use by children age 16 and younger.
The hearing at West Virginia University's Health Sciences Center was to collect both input on the potential ban and general information concerning a recent spike in national deaths and injuries. West Virginia was chosen as the site for the initial meeting because it has the highest ATV-related death rate in the United States, according to a commission spokesman.
Weintraub and several of nearly 40 other speakers urged the commission to pass a ban that has enforcement teeth, saying it would be a step toward setting a national, pro-safety "social norm."
One of three North Central speakers, Sam Leeson of Bridgeport, was among those who argued against a ban. Leeson works for Leeson's Import Motors of Bridgeport and owns four ATVs that he rides with his wife and children, who are ages 7 and 8. He said all wear helmets and observe good safety techniques.
"The parents know what they want to do and they're going to do it," said Leeson, who added the dealership for which he works takes pains to avoid selling adult-sized machines for child use. "It's a parent's decision how they're going to raise their child."
Two of the commissioners extensively questioned Leeson about what role government should play for children whose parents are less safety minded.
Leeson responded by saying that bad parents are going to be bad parents, whether it's with an ATV or any other sort of vehicle or activity.
He and several other of the anti-ban speakers also said they favor some state regulations in lieu of federal intervention.
West Virginia is among six states to not have any such laws, however, which was a point expounded on by state Sen. Mike Oliverio, D-Monongalia. He has introduced or supported ATV legislation attempts for several years. In 2003, he helped defeat a bill he felt would have been more damaging than no law because it would have essentially endorsed riding on paved roads and children not wearing helmets on private land.
"It's a change of culture and the law drove that," Oliverio said of his hope an ATV law will someday mirror what a youth bicycle helmet law has done for the state.
The three commissioners, one of whom is a former New Mexico legislator, expressed their sympathy for the failed legislation attempts and used the word "incredible" in reaction to the state's regulation-rejection history.
They also expressed an interest in helping get a state law passed.
That offer was welcomed by Jim Helmkamp, Ph.D., incoming director of the WVU Center for Rural Emergency Medicine. Helmkamp presented numerous statistics showing a growing pattern of deaths, particularly among West Virginia youths and men over age 65. He said the state saw a record 27 deaths in 2002 and five, so far, in 2003.
"It tells a very stark and bleak story that we need to address," Helmkamp said of the numbers he is trying to use to push state legislation and the federal ban. "The problem is not only ... in West Virginia. It's a national problem."
Other speakers ringing in for or against the potential ban were varied and included physicians, a law enforcement officer, the head of a manufacturers group, rider group representatives and an official from the organization that publishes Consumers Report magazine.
The sites and dates of the remaining field hearings have not been set and the process does not have a specific deadline, Commissioner Thomas Moore said.
Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at email@example.com