By William Plummer
February 23, 1987 12:00 PM

The sun was just coming up on Christmas Day 1982 when the Vance boys found their all-terrain vehicles parked at the door of their Gatlinburg, Tenn. farmhouse. Bob, then 13, and Matt, 12, were so excited that it was all their folks could do to make them sit and read the manual before setting out on the day’s adventure. The boys’ parents, Janet and Jeff Vance, were not unduly worried about their sons’ well-being because, according to the Vances, the Honda salesman had made the ATV seem little more than a child’s toy. After a couple of hours of studying the manual, followed by a quiz by Jeff, the boys were let loose in the front yard. By mid-afternoon they were permitted to take the ATVs, geared to go no more than 15 mph, along the farm’s dirt roads.

It was nearly 4 o’clock when Matt returned alone to tell his father that Bob had had an accident. It was bad, he said. Bob wasn’t moving. “The best we can determine,” says Jeff Vance, 37, “is that in going around a curve he lost control. Somehow the [250-pound] ATV turned over, threw him down a 20-foot embankment, then landed on his back. When I got there, he was only partly conscious and turning blue.” Doctors determined that Bob had a concussion and broken ribs and had damaged his kidneys, lungs and pancreas.

After a month in the hospital, Bob was sent home to recuperate, but when it became clear that he wasn’t getting better, the Vances took him to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where his condition continued to deteriorate. “Bob’s pain was so bad,” says Janet, “he told me he wanted to die.” After two months the doctors decided on surgery, largely to alleviate the boy’s pain, as they were not hopeful about saving his life. “But when the surgery was performed,” says Janet, “they found things weren’t as bad as they thought. The pancreas was ruptured in only one spot and they could repair it. The doctors told Bob it was a miracle he had a chance to be well again. One said, ‘Do you know how lucky you are?’ ”

Bob Vance was lucky. In the past five years ATVs—built by Japanese companies but marketed largely in the U.S.—have claimed the lives of 644 Americans and injured 230,000 more, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The fact that nearly 50 percent of the casualties have been kids 16 years old and younger has prompted the American Academy of Pediatricians to call for a moratorium on ATV sales in this country, which reached 500,000 last year. “The question,” says AAP member Dr. Joseph Greensher, “is what price recreation?” Congress conducted hearings on the vehicles in May 1985, after which the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Consumer and Monetary Affairs issued a report recommending that the Consumer Product Safety Commission recall all three-wheel ATVs (about 80 percent of those currently in use are three-wheel, as opposed to four-wheel, models). The subcommittee also recommended that the manufacturers be required to inform all ATV owners of the bike’s hazards “especially to children” and make training courses available to current owners. The report further suggested that states outlaw the use of ATVs by children under 12 and that they license riders under 16, but only after they had taken training classes.

CPSC Chairman Terrence M. Scanlon has voiced his concern that the three-wheel ATV is especially dangerous, capable of “bringing serious harm to even the most able child rider.” A Reagan appointee, he has requested that the manufacturers of ATVs voluntarily stop selling models specifically designed for children 12 and under. Ex-CPSC Chairman Stuart Statler, a Carter appointee who resigned last year, accuses the commission of “abdicating its responsibility to the public” by not acting more strongly in the ATV matter, which he calls “the most serious product hazard ever to confront the CPSC.” Statler does not think Japanese manufacturers will voluntarily cooperate with the commission. “I found them to be intransigent when it came to even considering the redesign of their vehicles,” he says. “They were more interested in blaming the user, citing user ignorance, carelessness, etc., when the real problem is the design of the vehicle.” Says John Walsh, a lawyer for Suzuki, “Based on what we know now there’s no serious safety problem involved with small ATVs, and in order to make sure that appropriately sized ATVs are available to kids under 12, we continue to plan to sell those vehicles.” Notes Alan Isley of the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, a trade group, “Each year a little over one percent of the people using ATVs are injured. That means 99 percent are using ATVs without injury. That does not justify a total ban.”

Critics point out that most of the three-wheelers lack mechanical shock absorbers and rely on their oversize tires to do the job. They say that the three-wheelers’ solid rear axle makes it tricky to handle, especially while turning. Combined with a high center of gravity, such design features make the vehicle inherently unstable. “People go into a motorcycle shop,” says Randy Nelson, an Escondido, Calif. bike dealer and former Honda employee, “and the guy is buying a racing machine, and he’ll say, ‘I’ll buy one of these for my wife.’ He points to one of the three-wheelers, thinking that’s the safer of the machines. But it’s really not. The three-wheel machines are unforgiving of the slightest wrong move.”

Janet and Jeff Vance say their Honda salesman was not nearly so forthright. The Vances say they had originally wanted to get their boys the smaller Honda three-wheeler, but were talked out of the ATV 70 (price: $800) and into the ATV 110 ($1,000) by the salesman, who said the kids would grow out of the smaller model. “Is it dangerous?” Janet Vance says she asked the fellow. “No,” she says he replied. Then she says she told the man about the steep hills on the farm. “I asked if the ATV would turn over, and the salesman said if you hit a large log that might cause it to turn over. He said that 10-year-olds could ride them easily. I asked if he knew of any injuries on ATVs and he said, ‘No.’ ” Janet Vance says that she was probably naive, but she trusted the salesman.

In April 1983, when they returned to their farm from the Mayo Clinic, the Vances wanted to forget the ordeal and get on with their lives. “Then,” says Janet, “people we knew began to send newspaper clippings about other children who had accidents on these vehicles. I had a growing concern that parents were being deluded into thinking these vehicles were safe and that accidents only occur when the rider isn’t trained enough. What kind of maneuver will save them when they’re riding through a field and they hit a bump and it flips?” That December the Vances sued Honda for $2 million. Their lawyer, Sidney Gilreath, heads a battery of 100 attorneys who represent about 400 ATV victims.

Bob Vance, meanwhile, appears to have made a complete physical recovery. Emotionally, however, he has been slower to mend. He has trouble talking about the accident. He was depressed for months, and only recently has he been able to celebrate the miracle of his recovery and not dwell on having been singled out for tragedy. It is a sign, perhaps, of his return to form that he is able to hunt and ski and play tennis—and he adds with a hint of a smile, “These days I confine all my riding to cars.”