ATVs bring risks with fun

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Talk to almost any all-terrain-vehicle user, and he or she likely will have a story about someone getting hurt on an ATV.

The accidents, whether mishaps or more serious, often are results of rider recklessness or inexperience, users say.

Mary Kay Monger's sons began using ATVs on the family ranch at ages 14 and 15. Although Mary Kay and her husband, Larry, "drilled" ATV safety into their sons, their son Mark got a concussion after losing control of and wrecking his vehicle.

"He learned real quick after that," Mary Kay said. Mark was in high school at the time and recovered from his injuries.

Not all riders are so fortunate.

About a week ago, a 54-year-old Denver man died of head injuries after apparently losing control of his ATV and hitting a tree in South Routt County. He was not wearing a helmet.

Last year, 12-year-old Travis Taber of Steamboat Springs died of asphyxiation while pinned beneath his ATV near Maybell.

Whether the results of freak accidents or driver error, the deaths highlight the risks of riding ATVs, which, like any vehicle, require skill and caution, ATV users and enthusiasts say.

"They aren't toys, and people tend to not take them seriously. ... People tend to ride beyond their ability," said Steve Chapel, president of the Western Slope ATV Association, based in Grand Junction.

ATVs popularity

With 250 members, more than twice the number of eight years ago, Chapel's organization reflects the growing popularity of ATVs, especially among aging baby boomers who no longer can hike or bike into the backcountry, Chapel said.

A dramatic spike in ATV sales at Action Motorsports in Steamboat in the past two years is showing no signs of tapering off, manager Bill Van Ness said.

In addition to recreation, ATVs commonly are used among ranchers to check on cattle, fix fences and tend to other tasks.

"We use them for everything," Mary Kay Monger said. "They've pretty much replaced horses on the ranch."

Paralleling increased ATV use is a growing number of deaths and injuries across the state and nation.

In Colorado, there were 66 ATV deaths between 1982 and 2003. More than 40 percent of those deaths happened between 2000 and 2003, according to numbers from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Com-mission.

The Routt County Sheriff's Office does not track ATV accidents, but Undersheriff Dan Taylor said he has not noticed a significant increase in the number of accidents his office has responded to.

Yampa Valley Medical Cen-ter began tracking ATV-related injuries in May 2004. Since then, there have been 70 injuries, mostly occurring in the summer and mostly among adults 19 and older, said Christine McKelvie, director of public information.

Users cite excessive speeds and overconfidence as common causes of ATV accidents.

ATVs used for recreation and work typically weigh 500 and 700 pounds, respectively, and can go as fast as 35 mph to 40 mph, Van Ness said, adding, "I never recommend going there."

Because ATVs are easy to use, riders underestimate potential dangers, said Rowan Heid, ranch manager at Del's Triangle 3 Ranch, where ATVs are "vital" to ranch operations and also are used to haul equipment for hunting trips.

"There is learning and skill involved that you don't have to have to get them going," he said.

Although Heid requires that staff wear helmets and operate the vehicles at low speeds, especially while hauling equipment, there still have been some minor accidents, mostly because of "big egos and little knowledge," he said.

Too often, beginning riders purchase ATVs and immediately try to tackle difficult trails, said Chapel, noting that most U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management trails marked for ATV use involve uneven and/or rough terrain, stream crossings, narrow trails near drop-offs and other challenges requiring intermediate to advanced skills.

Inexperienced riders tend to "freeze up" and stop their ATVs in precarious situations -- the worst thing you can do because it usually causes the ATV to tip over, Chapel said.

"People shouldn't be afraid to turn back," he said, noting that it's best to start out on Forest Service or BLM roads.

Although not required in Colorado, helmets are highly recommended for beginners and also for seasoned riders who, like any vehicle user, can find themselves in unpredictable situations.

Most members of Chapel's club didn't wear helmets until an experienced member wrecked his ATV and spent time in a hospital with head injuries.

"That made a lot of people wake up," he said. "A freak accident can happen to anybody, and a helmet is a better safe-than-sorry attitude."

Children and ATVs

Other safety concerns involve children who ride their vehicles on trails or use them on ranches.

At YVMC, 9 percent of ATV injuries were among children 14 and younger, McKelvie said.

Children often are injured when they strike a fence wire or tree branch or travel too fast, according to the Children's Safety Network.

Safety organizations stress that children 15 and younger should not operate adult ATVs because they cannot handle the speed capability and the vehicle's weight if it flips.

ATV manufacturers make "mini" ATVs that are lighter, wider and lower to the ground. Designed for children ages 6 to 12 and 12 to 16, the top speeds for the smallest vehicles are about 9 to 10 mph, Van Ness said.

Child-size ATVs do not come without risks, especially if children ride unsupervised. The tragic death of a 4-year-old Weld County boy earlier this month underscored that point.

The boy's body was found on the banks of the Platte River, several miles from his family's farm, where he went missing while riding a mini ATV.

The incident evoked strong emotions among ATV users and nonusers, many of whom say young children simply do not have skills to ride a motorized vehicle by themselves.

"Sometimes I think we try to have kids do things beyond their age. ... They should start out on pedals, like we did," Mary Kay Monger said.

Although children are more easily controlled, parents naturally put a little more faith in teenagers, who can't always be watched.

"I recommend, if you put a 16-year-old on an ATV, you make sure they know what they're doing," said rancher Jeff Fry, whose 17-year-old daughter, Chelsea, wrecked an ATV last year while checking a spring on the family's ranch.

The accident happened when she tried to turn the ATV around instead of backing out of a narrow space. She managed to jump off the vehicle before is slid several hundred feet down an embankment.

The accident was a little too close for comfort.

"I haven't let her back on it since," Fry said. "My kid's safety is more important."

Parents and children need to take the same precautions as they would with other ranch equipment or animals, said C.J. Mucklow, Routt County Extension agent.

"I think one of the things about farm and ranch kids and ATVs is we just get lax -- because I've got one, too -- about our kids using them, and we just don't think about the potential hazards and risks," he said. "It's just (about) being smart about ATVs, just like horses -- they are dangerous, too."

Education

Information about the appropriate age and use comes with each ATV model, and manufacturers request that dealers lead first-time owners through a basic training course to get them acquainted with the machines, Van Ness said, adding that his dealership will address the questions or concerns of any owner or potential buyer.

In addition, safety organizations recommend that beginning riders enroll in an ATV course such as the ATV Safety Institute's RiderCourse, offered in Craig and other areas.

For dates and times, call (800) 887-2887 or go to www.ATVSafety.org.

National 4-H organizations also have offered community ATV safety programs for local 4-H groups and extension offices. The Routt County Extension Office has held regular versions of the program in the past and will offer it again if parents are interested, Mucklow said. Call 879-0825.

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