OPINION – It’s transition time for the youth ATV class

It wasn’t perfect, but certainly more than I could ever imagined.
It was early December, a week into the first snowstorm in Minnesota, and I was playing the role of procrastinating father — trying to find a snowsuit for my 3-year-old son.
My impossible shopping list might have well included a bathing suit and a copy of the next day’s winning lottery numbers.
But there it was. Tucked in the back of an outlet store: a little black and blue snowsuit. Great brand name with a hefty discount. My lucky day. Of course, the snowsuit was way too big, but what fits today is too small tomorrow, right?
So I bought it.
Now, imagine that scenario playing out at a dealership, except switch the snowsuit for an ATV. And while we’re at it, switch the consumer from yours truly to a parent with a couple of kids in the 13 to 15-year-old range.
What happens next can vary. Many dealers I’ve spoken to say they religiously inform customers of the federal safety standards — kids under 16 can’t ride a vehicle with a larger engine than 90cc.
But what fits today is too small tomorrow, right? So there are certainly parents out there that don’t listen to the dealers’ safety warnings, perhaps don’t receive the warnings at all or disregard them once they hit the dunes, beach or the closest woodlands. So their children end up riding powerful 250cc ATVs that are designed for much-bigger riders. Catastrophe, in the form of a visit to the emergency room or worse, isn’t far behind.
To a certain extent, there’s only so much that the industry or the federal government’s rule-makers can do to end that practice. Parents will be parents.
But the situation can be improved.
The federal government is looking at creating or strengthening the current ATV safety standards, which are currently voluntary. One of the new ideas is the creation of an in-between vehicle, one that would serve children who have outgrown the 50cc and 90cc models but aren’t big enough to handle the larger and more powerful 250ccs. The new class of vehicles has been referred to as transitional ATVs, and they would potentially be targeted for the 13-15 age group. (See the related story on Page 46.)
How big would they be? What size engine would they have? All of that is up in the air. The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s ATV safety group, however, is looking at the transitional vehicle as a way to combat the increasing number of injuries and deaths related to ATV crashes.
And to me, that’s a good thing. The commission and the industry should have a healthy interest in the creation of such a vehicle.
It makes sense in a number of ways.
First, it fills a void in the market. Many kids in the 13-15 age group are forced out of the sport because they’ve outgrown their machines. And that by itself should be a neon-bulb warning light to the industry: You’re possibly losing future buyers because they’re forced into other hobbies and interests at a young age.
Second, the technology’s there. Several OEMs build or have built ATVs that could potentially fit the transitional vehicle engine and chassis size.
Third, it makes safety-sense. Many industry insiders point out some kids in the transitional age group are potentially at risk when riding 90cc vehicles. Being too big for a machine can carry safety risks of its own.
Other industry insiders, however, aren’t too sure. Their concern lies, again, with the parent. Will the parent buy a transitional vehicle for a smaller child who should be riding a 50cc or 90cc, thus creating more safety risks?
That’s a possibility, and leads to further questions regarding training requirements and appropriate warning labels.
But if a child is going to be allowed to ride a large ATV — a stomach-churning prospect but unfortunately a realistic one — wouldn’t it be better if the vehicle had a 125cc or 150cc engine rather than a 250cc?
The tougher question is if a transitional vehicle is created, would youth safety standards have to be recrafted so that age isn’t the defining safety measurement? Would the defining measurement instead be height and weight, rather than age?
It’s an issue the Consumer Product Safety Commission is looking at.
And it’s not an easy call.
One doctor in the Twin Cities area informed me that growth among teenagers can be tricky. Girls often can be nearing the end of their growth in regards to height, but boys can just be warming up.
Safety standards aside, there’s one other looming question: Will it sell?
It’s a question that I put to major players in two of the nation’s biggest dealership groups, Clark Vitulli of America’s Powersports and Brian Kane of RideNow Powersports Management Group. Both believe there’s a market for the transitional vehicle, but they were hardly giddy about it being a difference-maker on the showroom.
But Kane, the director of parts and accessories for RideNow, did bring up a vital statistic. Most consumers, he said, only keep their ATVs, or dirt bikes for that matter, for an average of two years.
That is a key point for the industry to remember. If a parent can buy Junior a 50cc vehicle to ride on for two years, they can certainly do the same five to 10 years later when their son has reached the transitional age group.
Plus, the transitional vehicle may be a way for dealerships to profit off the increased popularity of the ATV youth market. Many big-box stores have elbowed into the ATV market by offering inexpensive vehicles. Because of that, there’s a whole new generation of ATV enthusiasts, a generation that one day will outgrow their smaller vehicles and be looking for the next step in ATVs. psb

Send your thoughts and comments to Editor Neil Pascale at npascale@ehlertpublishing.com.

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