The Great American Dirt Bike: Toy or Tool?

National Journal

by Ben Terris

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s father used a horse to get around his 1,100-acre Montana farm. When Jon got older, he sold the horse and bought a motorcycle.

Now, Montana's junior senator is trying to help keep the young citizens of Montana riding. At the start of this Congress, Tester reintroduced legislation dubbed "the dirt bike bill" that makes it possible for retailers to sell motorized vehicles (dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles) properly sized for children as young as six.

Why can’t 6 year olds ride dirt bikes you may ask?

If you thought it had something to do with the inherent danger of zipping around on what is essentially a small Harley Davidson, you’d be wrong. Instead, it has to do with lead. In 2008, the passage of the Consumer Product Safety Act made it illegal for children’s toys to contain more than a specified amount of lead.

Concern over lead in children’s toys came to a head in 2006 when a 4-year-old boy named Jarnell Brown of Minneapolis died after swallowing a heart-shaped charm bracelet made by Reebok. The charm, which came free in a box of shoes, turned out to be made almost entirely of the heavy metal, and Brown died of lead poisoning.

As part of subsequent toy-safety legislation, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., added a provision that would ban the metal from children’s toys. The bill has led to the recall of an array of toys including dinosaur play sets, body boards, fishing poles, animal masks, and dolls.

As far as the bill was concerned, if children were going to ride dirt bikes, they had to adhere to the same set of regulations as Barbie dolls. And children’s dirt bikes and ATVs had enough lead in their brake parts, battery terminals, and other internal components to keep them off the market. To Tester, this wasn’t horse sense; it was horse’s ass sense.

“I don’t think of them as toys,” he said. “There’s a big difference between a dirt bike and a dollhouse. I really don’t see there being a big risk of children chewing on the motor and getting lead poisoning,” Tester said.

A spokesman for Klobuchar said that that she never intended for dirt bikes or ATVS to be included in the bill, and is has in fact voted in favor of exempting them from the lead ban.

To some, a dirt bike is more than just a play thing, it’s the best way to enjoy the Big Sky State's great outdoors. The fourth-largest state in the country, Montana really is an “all-terrain” state, featuring everything from the mountains to the prairies. Sure, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the outdoors, but few offer the high-speed and dust-kicking capabilities of motorized vehicles.

Tester says riding dirt bikes and ATVs to enjoy this eclectic landscape is a quintessential Montana experience. It’s something he remembers from his youth when he used to ride around on his Honda 160 with his friends. It's a practice he passed down to his granddaughter when she got her first ATV at the age of four (it was small enough that Tester said he would certainly bend the frame if he tried to sit on it).

Even the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which issues recalls based on the Consumer Product Safety Act, is sensitive to this issue. While the agency will not comment on pending legislation, a spokesman said they had offered ATV companies a stay on lead testing set to expire in the fall, on the condition that they try to lower their lead content.

“The commission has spoken out publicly in recent years that there is a concern about the potential implication of the safety of riders if there were to be fewer models in the market because we believe that could cause more young riders to jump on adult-sized ATVs,” said Scott Wolfson of the CPSC.

But retailers are afraid that manufacturers won’t be able to significantly lower their lead levels by the fall. Therefore, it’s of little shock that store owners like Mitch Noack, who owns the Helena Cycle Center in Helena, Mont., is hoping for Tester’s law to pass.

“If you can’t get kids out riding at a young age, they play Nintendo games on the TV instead of getting out and enjoying the immense beauty of the state,” Noack said on the phone from his shop. Not being able to sell to children would “very adversely affect” Noack’s business. First, not being able to sell to children takes away a large share of his customer base. But perhaps more importantly is what it does for the future.

“If we can’t get kids out riding when they are young, then they won’t be interested in it when they are older,” he said. “It means that in 10 years when these kids grow up, they won’t want to buy a dirt bike or ATV. And if we can’t sell to them, or to the next generation of kids, who do we have?”

Tester says that his bill can help alleviate economic woes on a number of levels. First, it will allow retailers to regain a large part of their market. But it’s not just retailers that will benefit, it’s also farmers.

“ATVs aren’t just for fun,” Tester said. “They are important pieces of equipment on the farm. People need their children to be able to pick up rocks that could jam up their machines and check the cows.”

Picking rocks, checking on cows? That sounds like it could be a lot of work. Perhaps the only real opposition to this bill will come from the kids looking to get out of doing their chores.