FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Consumer and environmental groups are urging the licensing of all-terrain vehicle drivers and they say children should be kept off the machines.
The national campaign announced Tuesday counters a recent action in Alaska, where an old, obscure state law requiring operators of ATVs, snowmachines and watercraft to have drivers' licenses was written off the books by legislators earlier this year.
At a news conference in Washington, D.C., three national organizations said statistics show that ATVs are still unsafe. The numbers debunk the widespread belief that four-wheelers are safer than the three-wheelers banned by the government 14 years ago, they said.
The old law eliminated by Alaska's Legislature had required all motor vehicle operators to have a license when on any ''highway, vehicular right of way or other public property in this state.''
Under the law, no one under 16 could legally operate an ATV or snowmachine alone off private property. That's exactly the policy endorsed Tuesday by the Consumer Federation, along with two environmental consortiums -- the Natural Trails and Water Coalition and the Bluewater Network.
The Legislature replaced that law. It says a person doesn't need an Alaska driver's license ''when driving or operating an off-highway vehicle, watercraft, aircraft, or other vehicle not designed for highway use as specified by the department by regulation.'' That essentially legalizes children who ride.
Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, was one of only two senators to vote against the change.
''The state, through this bill, was saying 'We have no further interest in any sort of qualification for any person of any age to operate a snowmachine or ATV,'' Wilken told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Tuesday. ''That really seemed irresponsible to me.''
But Rick Evans, general manager of Fairbanks Motor Sports, said he doesn't see the need for more government regulation of ATV users.
''You can use a bicycle wrong,'' but that doesn't mean the government should take them from children and license others who ride them, he said.
Martha Moore, who tracks trauma information for the state Department of Health and Social Services in Juneau, said statistics from the 1990s in Alaska show an increase in ATV injuries. The state has no data for recent years because the international injury classification system changed in 1999 and made it difficult to isolate ATV and snowmachine data, she said.
ATV-related deaths between 1994 and 1998 ranged from one to three a year, not enough to establish a clear trend, Moore said. Nonfatal hospitalizations due to ATV accidents generally increased from 1994 to 1999, rising from 87 to 112, Moore said. The numbers don't count emergency room visits where a person is not admitted overnight.
Still, four-wheelers are a necessity in the villages and country around Nome, said Loretta Bullard, president of Kawerak, the regional health and social services agency. While she likes the idea that ATV drivers and passengers wear helmets, she balked at the proposal to prohibit anyone under 16 from driving them.
''I think there's probably a younger age that people can drive responsibly,'' she told the Anchorage Daily News.
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