After her 10-year-old son, Kyle, died on the family’s all-terrain vehicle five years ago, Sue DeLoretto Rabe formed a group of moms who had lost kids on ATVs to push safety measures in Congress and the states.

But it wasn’t until she tried to ban kids under 12 from ATVs in Oregon that things got ugly.

ATV proponents went on the attack. They called Rabe a negligent parent who contributed to her son’s death. They dug up a police report about Kyle’s accident. They mysteriously acquired a copy of the owner’s registration Rabe signed when she bought her ATV that included her promise not to let anyone under 18 ride it.

Shocked and demoralized, Rabe quit the debate over “Kyle’s Law” in March.

“It really hurts to read these things,” Rabe told the bill’s supporters in an e-mail explaining her decision to drop out. “It brings everything back to the present.”

Now, Kyle’s Law appears dead in Oregon, and only one of four other ATV safety bills pending in the state Legislature has a chance. The reasons illustrate why states have proved a poor alternative to weak federal regulation of ATVs, which are involved in more than 800 deaths and 136,000 injuries a year. A quarter of the deaths and 30 percent of injuries are to children under 16.

Time and again, a vocal alliance of riders and ATV dealers has beaten back or watered down legislation pushed by consumer advocates, trauma surgeons and bereaved parents.

For decades, the $5 billion-a-year ATV industry has advocated strict state laws on riding. But neither the ATV companies nor their trade group showed up in Salem, Oregon’s capital, this winter to support the safety bills, even though three of the measures were cribbed from the industry’s “model legislation.”

Officials at the industry’s lobbying arm, the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, said they knew about the Oregon bills but didn’t come to testify in support of them because they weren’t asked.

The ATV industry has fought regulation in Washington, D.C., for years by saying it’s a job for the states.

But state ATV safety laws are a messy patchwork. A dozen states have no rules whatsoever. Others require helmets and training or set age limits, but the laws are rife with exceptions when riding on private lands or when a young rider is supervised by an adult.

Safety advocates point out that the existing rules in Oregon are lenient compared with those for cars and bicycles. To get a driver’s license in Oregon, teens must be at least 16 and pass written and skills tests. Kids under 16 are required to wear helmets to ride a bicycle. Not so to ride an all-terrain vehicle on private land in Oregon. A 6-year-old can hop aboard a 600-pound ATV that travels at freeway speeds and violate no law.

As initially proposed, Kyle’s Law would have banned anyone under 12 from riding ATVs on public or private lands. It quickly became a lightning rod for critics, who have dominated the ATV safety debate in Salem this year.

‘It’s your worst fear’

Five years have passed since May 6, 2002, but the grief has not. Sue Rabe visits her son’s grave regularly. On the headstone is an etching of Kyle atop the family’s Arctic Cat 250.

Kyle and his friend Zach Rouse were riding ATVs that day. Kyle’s ATV was not a youth model, but he rode as well as any adult, said his father, Tom Rabe. Traveling down a grassy slope, Kyle’s machine overturned, pinning him to the ground. Though he wore a helmet and protective gear, he couldn’t breathe under the ATV’s weight.

Garth Rouse, alerted by his son, estimated he arrived at the scene 10 or 15 minutes after the accident. “By the time I got there, Kyle was gone, no breathing, no nothing,” he said. “It’s your worst fear that could ever happen.”

The Rabes arrived minutes later and frantically started CPR. Tom Rabe said he could taste the milk and cookies Kyle ate at his friend’s. An ambulance took Kyle to the hospital, but it was too late. He had died of asphyxiation.

Numb with grief, the Rabes agonized over their role in Kyle’s death and their naivete about the dangers of ATVs. When they bought the machine, their dealer sent an employee to “fit” the machine to Kyle, Sue Rabe said. No one questioned her son’s age or size.

The Rabes never shirked their culpability in their son’s death. The warning labels on the machine clearly stated that children under 16 shouldn’t ride it.

“If someone blames me, I’ll say, “Yeah, it was my fault,”‘ Sue Rabe said.

Five months after the accident, Rabe took a call from Washington, D.C.

Rachel Weintraub, a lawyer who oversees product safety at the Consumer Federation of America, was searching for parents of children killed on ATVs. The federation advocated for a federal ban on sales of adult-sized ATVs for use by kids under 16, reasoning that it would send a stronger message to parents.

Weintraub told Sue Rabe that Kyle’s death wasn’t isolated – thousands of children had died on ATVs.

Rabe signed on. She did interviews with People and Reader’s Digest. She heard from other mothers who’d lost children on ATVs. Eventually, she co-founded a group of mothers, Concerned Families for ATV Safety.

The similarity of the mothers’ stories – the kids on adult-sized machines, the frequency of rollovers, the lack of awareness among parents that ATVs could kill – convinced Rabe that she was on the right track.

“I think this is what we were meant to do,” she told her husband.

Separately, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department drafted four bills to govern ATVs on public lands. One would make helmets mandatory for all riders, not just those under 18. Another would prohibit passengers on machines designed for one rider. A third would require that ATVs be titled with the state, and the fourth would mandate training for all riders on public land.

The department’s package seemed achievable. All but the titling bill are advocated by the SVIA, the manufacturers’ group. Plus, the committee of off-road enthusiasts that helps oversee the parks department’s spending on ATV recreation backed the bills.

Rabe took a different route.

She joined with Oregon SafeKids, a group of doctors, parents and public health officials, to push Kyle’s Law. Several other states have adopted similar ATV age limits. The minimum in Maine is 10, in North Carolina, 8. The ATV industry says limits have helped reduce the share of child deaths as a portion of all ATV fatalities.

With Democrats controlling the Legislature, Rabe and her allies thought their chances looked good.

Soon, they were wondering what hit them.

Riders Fight Back

With 56,000 ATVs permitted for public lands, and thousands more operated on private property, Oregon’s rider community was fertile ground for a rebellion against new regulation.

Many live in rural areas, and the issue carved a new fissure in the state’s cultural divide.

Recreational riders equate ATV riding with family fun and togetherness. They were furious that the bill implied they were bad parents for letting their kids on ATVs. Others viewed the bills as more punishment for rural communities, akin to environmental rules that strangled the timber economy.

Some opponents of the bills struck an anti-government tone reminiscent of the gun control debate.

“They want to tax you, they want to regulate you, they want to get you off public lands,” Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, roared to a cheering crowd of ATV users who organized a pro-ATV rally at the Capitol in early February.

Others warned that small-town economies would suffer. Siuslaw National Forest officials figure half the 1.2 million annual visitors to the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area come to ride ATVs and other off-road rigs.

DuneFest, a summer off-road event on the south coast, draws 10,000 riders a year. The Reedsport-Winchester Bay Chamber of Commerce estimates off-road recreation adds $10 million to the area economy.

“With the logging being where it’s at and the salmon being where it is, we’ve got to be really grateful for the ATV industry,” said chamber officer Joe Mirvis. “What is the next progression of industry for us? It’s tourism and recreation. As far as the ATV industry, we’ve got to promote it.”

The barrage of angry letters, e-mails and calls stunned the Kyle’s Law sponsors.

Some were form letters orchestrated by off-road clubs. Others were impassioned, hand-scrawled pleas from riders arguing that ATVs were central to their lives and kept families together.

“I am turning 9 on April 14 and I LOVE riding quads,” 8-year-old Jason Hector wrote. “And if you prohibit this sport, I’ll be very, very angry.”

“Get your phones and e-mails ready … this thing needs to go down in a flaming heap!” said Patrick Bates, co-founder of the ATV club Temporary Insandity, on the group’s Web site.

The opposition bled over to the parks and recreation bills.

The Oregon Vehicle Dealers Association, headed by veteran lobbyist Monte King, condemned all five bills. Before a House committee hearing, King repeated a common refrain: Riders who get hurt on ATVs are usually behaving irresponsibly.

“You can’t fix stupid,” King said.

Lawmakers soften bill

Now on the defensive, the Kyle’s Law sponsors decided the age limit should apply on public lands only. And rather than set the minimum age at 12, they lowered it to 8.

Relieved that Kyle’s Law still stood a chance, Rabe soon confronted another obstacle: her story.

Opponents circulated copies of the form she signed when buying the Arctic Cat, showing she checked boxes to waive free training and acknowledge it was an adult machine. ATV riders howled. Not only was Rabe a negligent parent, she was also a hypocrite in trying to shift blame from herself to the industry, they said.

Soon, they brandished the sheriff’s report on Kyle’s accident, which suggested that Kyle may have been pinned for an hour before the Rabes responded. The report is flatly contradicted by Garth Rouse, who was first to the scene. Nevertheless, the ATV enthusiasts used it to further vilify Sue Rabe.

How opponents got a copy of Rabe’s ATV registration form remains a puzzle. Pat Richards, president and general manager of Fisher Implement, which sold the ATV to Rabe, said his company never provided it. Besides the Rabes, copies went to Arctic Cat and to the SVIA. Both denied making the form available.

Lindy Minten, a Scio, Ore., mom and ATV enthusiast, emerged as a fierce critic of Kyle’s Law and Sue Rabe, telling supporters at the Capitol that Kyle’s death “wasn’t a tragic accident. It was neglect and endangerment.”

In an interview, Minten said the state has no business butting in on responsible parents. She continually brought the discussion back to the Rabes, saying that any parent who loses a child in an unsupervised ATV accident should be charged with negligent homicide.

“ATVs are dangerous,” Minten said. “We need to make people aware of that, and we need to hold people accountable.”

Mother had enougth

By early March, the crush of flaming e-mails branding her a bad parent persuaded Rabe to drop out.

Kyle’s Law never received a committee hearing. Legislators wanted no part of it.

The parks department bills to ban passengers and require vehicle titles never advanced. The helmet bill, once considered most likely to pass, went down 34-22 in the House. The measure calling for mandatory training remains alive, largely because of Minten’s rider group, which supports hands-on courses rather than the Internet-based training that parks officials proposed.

Whether the ATV industry could have made a difference by testifying will never be known. The SVIA told parks officials it opposed Kyle’s Law and has generally been leery of age limits. But since the 1980s, the trade group has called for mandatory training and helmet laws and a passenger ban – all identical to the parks department’s bills.

Still, the SVIA never showed up.

“I don’t think we were ever asked to come and testify,” Kathy Van Kleek, the group’s lead lobbyist, said. “I honestly don’t recall.”

Jim Myron, legislative coordinator for the parks department, said he underestimated the clout of riders.

Rabe, stung by the tactics of opponents, said she’s done with politics for now.

“Does riding ATVs truly mean that much to them that they will do anything to discredit health officials, doctors and even the people who have lost a child?” Rabe said.

“No one is immune to this happening to them,” she said of Kyle’s death. “We never thought it could happen to us either, but it did. And you don’t get a second chance.”

Jeff Manning is a staff writer for The Oregonian of Portland, Ore. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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