The number of U.S. children injured while riding all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) has fallen since 2004, according to a new study of emergency room records.
Researchers said it's not clear if that trend is due to fewer kids riding ATVs in the first place - possibly for financial reasons - or to better safety practices, such as helmet use.
Ruth Shults, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, and her colleagues analyzed information from a U.S. injury surveillance system, which tracks emergency visits to a nationally-representative group of about 66 hospitals.
Between 2001 and 2010, those hospitals saw close to 5,500 children age 15 and under with injuries sustained while riding an ATV - equivalent to just over 361,000 injuries nationwide.
The annual rate of injuries increased in the first part of the decade, from 50 injuries per 100,000 children in 2001 to 67 per 100,000 in 2004. Then it declined again, falling to 42 injuries per 100,000 children by 2010.
Boys had about twice as many ATV-related injuries as girls, the study team reported Monday in Pediatrics. Broken bones made up just over one-quarter of injuries that brought children to the ER, and one in eight kids had to be hospitalized.
"At least among children who show up in the emergency department, the severity of the injuries seems to be about the same" over time, Shults told Reuters Health.
Her group's figures do not include kids who were seen in clinics or non-hospital urgent care facilities.
Dr. Allison McBride, a pediatric emergency medicine doctor from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said it makes sense that the economy and the price of gasoline may be limiting ATV use by young people.
But she hasn't noticed a decline in injuries in her practice.
"I've seen a lot of ATV injuries in very young children," McBride, who wasn't involved in the new study, told Reuters Health.
"I think one of the big problems… is that the adult-sized ATV is often what kids are driving and it's not made for their size to maneuver and it's so heavy that if it lands on them it can be life-threatening," she said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends prohibiting all children under 16 years old from using ATVs.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the source of the ATV injury data used here, says children shouldn't ride adult vehicles, should always wear a helmet and other safety gear and should never drive on paved roads - where ATVs are more likely to roll over. The group also recommends all ATV users take a safety training course.
"When used safely, these can be a lot of fun," said Dr. Robert Winfield, a trauma surgeon from Washington University in St. Louis, who has studied ATV safety and didn't participate in the new research.
But, he told Reuters Health, the lack of uniform training standards and safety measures can leave young people at risk.
"We're sending kids who aren't eligible to drive in a car into a vehicle where they're less protected and oftentimes without any safety training," Winfield said.