On Tuesday the Oregon Senate passed by a wide margin a bill that would allow children of any age to ride motorcycles, dirt bikes and other off-road ATVs. Let me be frank, it is hard to see how any responsible parent would allow a child that young to ride a motorized vehicle, but we all know that some will. Though presented during debate as a matter of personal freedom, this is truly a case in which society’s interest in protecting children has to be balanced against a conception of ‘freedom’ so individualistic that it comes to pose a threat to everyone else.
As reported in The Oregonian, Senate Bill 238 passed the Oregon Senate 22-7 with support from 12 Republicans and 10 Democrats. All but one of the seven ‘no’ votes came from Democrats. Supporters tout the measure “as a way to improve safety for young and off-road riders because it requires anyone under 16 to meet minimum size requirements, known as a “rider fit” test” before they can be certified to operate ATVs and other off-road vehicles. The paper notes, however, that another provision of the bill repeals the existing prohibition on children under age seven riding such vehicles. In other words, SB 238 would allow children at the ages of six, five or even four – children who might not yet have the balance to ride a bicycle – to sit atop a powerful quad-ATV and ride not only on their family’s property but also on public lands throughout the state.
It seems contradictory to toughen basic safety requirements for children in general while removing a common sense ban designed to protect small children – children whose cognitive ability, motor skills and general perception of danger are not sufficiently developed to operate a motor vehicle, even under parental supervision. Ironically, this bill passed the senate even as Oregon and the rest of the country are marking national brain injury awareness month, a time designed to focus attention on the dangers traumatic brain injuries pose to kids here and elsewhere.
Supporters quoted by the newspaper characterized the issue as one of personal freedom and parental empowerment. By that logic, however, why don’t we let individual parents decide whether or not their 10-year-old can drive a car from Portland to Salem? The answer, of course, is that while a few 5th graders might be able to do so the vast majority cannot, and were they to try they would pose a danger to themselves and to everyone else on the road. Merely taking the vehicle in question off a public highway does not alter the essential logic of that prohibition. Society acknowledges this, which is why we take that decision out of the hands of individual parents.
Similarly, the argument by one Hillsboro senator quoted by the paper: “Government can’t protect children but a parent can,” does not hold up. Government issues many laws and regulations designed to protect irresponsible parents from themselves and the rest of us from their actions. That’s why you can get in legal trouble for endangering your own child: children are human beings and the law has an obligation to protect them from dangerous and negligent actions by adults who are supposed to be protecting and supervising them. Moreover, even if some parents are irresponsible enough to let small children operate ATVs at home, there is no reason why the state should endorse such callous behavior by allowing it on public property.
No Portland child injury lawyer likes to take a case involving a child injured through an adult’s negligence and, obviously, the vast majority of parents would never let their children ride an ATV at age five or six. For the sake of kids whose parents may be less responsible – or who may just have trouble saying ‘no’ – we can only hope that wiser heads prevail as SB 238 heads to Oregon’s House.
SafeKids Oregon Website