Tennessee Hears Calls for Safety Oversight As ATV Death Toll Rises

October 16, 2009

An East Tennessee teenager’s weekend death in an all terrain vehicle accident brought the state’s 2009 death toll in ATV wrecks to eight, and a national consumer safety spokeswoman said the national death toll from the machines is “staggering.”

More than 7,000 people in the U.S. have died in ATV-related accidents since 1993, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The eight Tennessee deaths so far this year follow 20 people killed on ATVs in 2008 and 12 in 2007, state Department of Safety records show.

No state agency in Tennessee regulates off-road use of ATVs and few rules apply to riding them on private property, but a state wildlife agency spokesman said that needs to change.

There is also little safety oversight for children riding on ATVs. The vehicles are not allowed on Tennessee’s public roads except to cross.

“Every single summer I walk around cursing ATVs. They are such dangerous vehicles,” said Dr. Greg Talbott, chief of pediatric critical care at TC Thompson Children’s Hospital in Chattanooga.

Like many of Tennessee’s other 158 ATV accident victims since 1993, 17-year-old Steven James Wright was not wearing a helmet in a crash after dark Sunday. He collided on a gravel driveway with another ATV, critically injuring a 16-year-old friend, on private property in Bradley County.

ATV riders should always wear helmets, said Consumer Product Safety Commission spokeswoman Sonia Hayes-Pleasant, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency region spokesman Dan Hicks and Bradley County Sheriff Tim Gobble.

“One thing we do know is that helmets are essential to protecting the ATV riders,” Hayes-Pleasant said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Tennessee lawmakers approved a 2007 statute requiring helmets for ATV riders younger than 18 after the legislation was changed to allow exemptions on private property.

The measure’s sponsor, state Sen. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, said there was no way to get the bill approved without the private property exemption. Black said she opposes unnecessary government regulation, but there are permanent injuries that end up requiring government-subsidized care.

Black, an emergency room nurse, said injuries from ATV crashes are “not like a broken arm where we put a cast on you. In these situations, with these head injuries, these folks many times never recover.”

“It just hurts my heart to think all we had to do was put a helmet on somebody’s head,” she said.

Hicks said ATVs require training, are difficult to operate and are not designed for more than one person. Hicks also said helmets are recommended but not required on designated ATV trails in Tennessee’s wildlife management areas.

He said eventually “the state is going to have to address these things.”

Several calls seeking comment from ATV dealers were not returned this week.

Hayes-Pleasant said states have varying rules for riding ATVs, which she described as “powerful and potentially dangerous vehicles.”

She described the death toll as “staggering.”

“We want to make sure young people are fitted to the right size ATVs,” Hayes-Pleasant said. “Oftentimes we see many of the riders that are hopping on the machines that are much too big and powerful for their body size.”

Talbott said children younger than 16 should not be driving or riding ATVs.

“That’s not popular information but if you open the box that’s what it says,” he said.

Talbott said there have been four ATV fatalities in the trauma center’s region in the past year.

Talbott said 22 pediatric patients with injuries from ATV accidents have been admitted to the hospital in the past year, 13 of them with head injuries. Of the 22, four were wearing helmets and one was wearing an adult helmet that fell off.

He said families don’t realize how powerful the ATVs are and a crash is “like running into a tree with no bumper and no restraints.”

Hayes-Pleasant said people should keep in mind that “children under the age of 6 should never ride on an ATV. There have been instances where we hear of 2-year olds falling off.”

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