All the Utech family needs for a weekend outing is some open land. They rev up their all-terrain vehicles and take off. To them, it is a sport they can do together in all kinds of weather.
"My kids have them. My husband and I have them. All of our friends have them," said Joann Utech of Crystal Lake. "We do vacations with them. It's a great family sport."
But to some farmers, legislators and consumer watchdogs, it is recreation they could do without.
ATVs, or four-wheelers, are more popular than ever. People of all ages enjoy them year-round in this area and throughout Illinois, where no age restrictions exist.
That's fine, say those calling for more restrictions, as long as joy-riders learn the rules, wear helmets, and stay off private land.
Efforts are under way to more strongly penalize riders caught tearing up private farmland and improve safety regulations. Although some states require safety permits and helmets, Illinois does not. No federal legislation exists.
The ATV Safety Institute asked states in the 1980s to enact a law that would require all riders to earn a safety certificate, but few states supported the measure, said Kathy Vankleeck, vice president of government relations for the institute.
More recently, the Consumer Federation of America requested that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission ban ATV use for children younger than 16, spokesman Scott Wolfson said.
"There's a clear recognition that deaths and injuries have spiked, and they have particularly spiked with young children," Wolfson said.
The commission is studying whether to support the ban, but already warns that the vehicles can be extremely dangerous without adult supervision, he said.
More people are riding at night and on pavement when they should be riding off-road, he said.
"This is not an easy vehicle to ride," Wolfson said. "It takes training, strength and dexterity."
In several recent accidents, young children riding on adult-size ATVs have been crushed underneath flipped vehicles, he said.
Along with an increase in fatalities, the commission reports that ATV injuries requiring an emergency room visit have more than doubled, from about 54,700 in 1997 to 114,000 in 2002. More than a third of the victims injured in 2002 were younger than 16.
Joann Utech's children, ages 10 and 13, always wear helmets when they ride, she said.
The Utechs typically ride on the family's farm in rural Woodstock and often take trips to Wisconsin.
"With any sport, there's always worry, but as long as they have the right safety equipment, I'm fine with it," Joann Utech said.
"Everybody's got their limitations and you've got to know those," she said. "With kids, it's a great learning experience for later on. They learn a lot of responsibility."
State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock, regularly rides his four-wheeler on his family's farmland in Marengo. He grew up riding dirt-bikes and switched to a four-wheeler so he could ride year-round.
"It's a good feeling," he said. "It's just fun to get in the areas you normally don't get to. You're out in the middle of nowhere."
Parental supervision would solve safety problems, he said, as long as children are taught how to ride ATVs and to wear helmets.
Cycle Craft Yamaha in Woodstock gives its customers federal guidelines that call for younger riders to use smaller ATVs, owner Larry Piekos said.
Despite more publicity about ATV-related accidents, including one involving singer Ozzy Osbourne, sales of the vehicles have taken off, Piekos said. The business sells about 100 ATVs a year for both recreation and use on a farm. Some farmers use them to plow, haul hay, mow, and chase down cattle.
"They sell like crazy," Piekos said. "People in the past who had snowmobiles have switched over to ATVs. They are so versatile."
Illinois – 29,411 sold in 2002; 9,478 sold in 1998
Nationwide – 847,000 sold in 2002; 447,000 sold in 1998
SOURCES: Illinois Secretary of State's Office, Specialty Vehicle Institute of America
Golden rules for ATV drivers
1. Take an approved training course. Call (800) 887-2887 to enroll.
2. Ride an ATV that's right for your age. The guidelines are:
Age 6 and older – Less than 70cc
Age 12 and older – 70cc to 90cc
Age 16 and older – More than 90cc
3. Supervise riders younger than 16.
4. Always wear the right safety gear, especially a helmet.
5. Never carry a passenger.
6. Always avoid paved surfaces. Never ride on public roads.
7. Ride only on designated trails and ride responsibly. atv parts