In a nearby town recently, I was creeping along a street, looking for an address, when I crested a hill and came face-to-face with two 4-wheel ATVs, kids hanging all over them, heading directly for my car.

Fortunately, I was able to swerve and avoid a collision as the kids laughingly zoomed by.

All looked as if they’d do well to be 10 years old. One ATV had two other youngsters as riders, the other had three — a grand total of seven who were in imminent danger because they were where they shouldn’t be, illegally operating vehicles on a public street, and not the first one wearing a helmet.

They doubtless never gave the incident a second thought and I’m sure didn’t bother to tell their parents how narrowly they’d escaped becoming a hospital or funeral home statistic.

Driving around the Mid-South, still predominantly an agricultural, rural region, I don’t know how many times I’ve seen young kids on ATVs, bouncing across rowed-up fields, or zooming up and down gullies with great abandon, most of them without helmets.

I know it’s great fun, and what parent wants to deny their kids some thrills?

A couple of farm families I’m acquainted with have wished many times they had not been so agreeable in letting their children ride ATVs unsupervised, because they had every parent’s worst nightmare — burying a child.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission just released its report for 2002, showing 621 people in the United States killed on ATVs, the highest number ever. Since tracking started in 1982, about one-third of the deaths each year have been children under age 16. About 70 percent of the under-16 fatalities were due to head/neck injuries (a 1997 survey showed only 36 percent of all ATV riders reported wearing a helmet at all times).

In 2003, CPSC figures show, 125,500 people suffered injuries serious enough to send them to an emergency room, an increase of 10 percent from the previous year. The average medical cost was nearly $7,000. Children under 16 continued to suffer more injuries than any other age group. Because of the increasing size and power of the machines, physicians say, injuries are becoming more serious.

The ATV industry, mindful of the death/injury statistics, continues to promote safe, responsible use of these machines and the reduction of accidents and injuries caused by improper use. It has developed safety education programs through the ATV Safety Institute and virtually all new ATV purchasers are offered cash incentives to enroll in the free, half-day education course. Available at more than 1,500 locations, the course emphasizes safety techniques, protective gear, environmental concerns, and local laws.

Different size ATVs are available for different age groups, but many of the accidents that occur are from too young children operating adult machines.

Here are some ATV safety tips from the CPSC:

• Those under 16 should not ride adult ATVs (engines bigger than 90 cc).

• Take a hands-on safety course.

Always wear a helmet.

• Never drive an ATV on paved roads.

• Never drive an ATV with a passenger and never ride as a passenger.

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com