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ATV riding risky for kids, experts say

Paul Peirce
| Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014, 9:45 p.m.

During her 20 years as a surgeon, Dr. Barbara Gaines has seen the scrapes, abrasions, broken bones, severe head and spinal trauma and fatal injuries children suffer in ATV accidents.

“Unfortunately, if you ask any surgeon at any children's medical facility, you'd receive a resounding ‘yes' when they are asked whether such accidents are common occurrences with young people. All-terrain vehicles are big, often powerful machines not specifically designed for children,” said Gaines, director of Trauma and Injury Prevention at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Every year in the United States, ATV accidents injure or kill 40,000 children younger than 16, according to The Safety Institute, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit. Its research shows ATV driving has the highest risk of hospitalization among 33 sports and activities popular with children, including bike riding, snowboarding, skateboarding, wrestling and basketball. The risk of serious injury associated with driving ATVs is 61 percent greater than for football, the activity with the next highest risk.

In emergency rooms across the country, 132,000 visits were attributed to ATVs in 2009, and 25 percent involved children younger than 16, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported.

Pennsylvania had 97 rider fatalities on public highways, the second-highest number in the nation, from 2007-11, the most recent federal statistics available, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va. The state trails only Kentucky, which had 122 ATV fatalities, followed by West Virginia with 96 and Texas with 95, said Russ Rader, senior vice president for communications at the independent nonprofit organization that works to reduce road crash deaths, injuries and property damage.

Crash kills 4-year-old

A tragic example played out Oct. 27 in Somerset County when Tailynn Felker, 4, was killed when she was thrown from a 2014 Polaris 500 — an ATV that can reach speeds of more than 60 mph — at a railroad crossing outside Meyersdale. Her 14-year-old cousin was driving with Tailynn and three other children who are 1, 3 and 9. None had a helmet or seat belt, police said.

Criminal charges have been filed against Tailynn's father, Bradley Felker, 28, and great-aunt, Stacy Dee Felker, 35, both of Summit Township. The teen driver faces multiple complaints in juvenile court including accidents involving death and injury and reckless endangerment.

Deadly crashes are more likely to occur in relatively rural areas, Rader said.

“A big part of the problem is that these vehicles are not designed for use on public roads. They are designed for off-road use,” Rader said.

With their oversized, low-pressure tires, ATVs aren't solely for recreational use, he noted. Some are used by farmers, police officers and those who patrol public lands.

Of the ATV deaths the group studied, 87 percent were drivers, most of them male and age 16 or older. Nearly two-thirds of deaths occurred on roadways.

A key factor in some fatal crashes is the driver's “risky behavior,” Rader said. “Only 13 percent of them were wearing a helmet, and 43 percent (of adult victims) were legally drunk. Others were speeding.”

The insurance institute noted that while 46 percent of motorcyclists killed in crashes in 2011 wore helmets, only 13 percent of drivers and 6 percent of passengers who died in ATV accidents wore them.

The study recommended that states pass tougher laws requiring helmet use and prohibit riding on public highways.

The insurance institute study noted that between 1986 and 1998, an average of 227 people died on ATVs each year.

As the popularity of the vehicles grew, deaths jumped past 800 in 2007, according to the consumer safety group. It estimated that 5.6 million ATVs were in use in 2001; by 2010, that number had ballooned to 10.6 million.

The number of on–road fatalities far outpaced those that occurred off–road from 1998 to 2007, the safety commission said.

Since 2011, Children's Hospital has treated about 90 children each year for ATV-related injuries, Gaines said.

“The majority are younger than 16. Last year, we had a 5-year-old, a 4-year-old, a 6-year-old, two 2-year-olds and even a 1-year-old. But that's just us, not other hospitals in our region,” Gaines said.

Though more children are injured on bicycles than ATVs — there are about 150 admissions a year at Children's — injuries from ATVs usually are far more severe because of the machines' “speed and power,” Gaines noted.

“They are machines which require an amount of physical strength to control and a certain cognitive maturity to operate and, unfortunately, a lot of younger children lack both of those skills — even with a lot of the smaller ATVs,” she said.

Police pursuit danger

Southwest Regional Police Chief John Hartman, whose jurisdiction includes eight municipalities in rural and urban areas of Fayette, Greene and Washington counties, said traffic enforcement of ATVs poses additional risks.

“We have continual problem with ATVs in our area. In fact, everyone in the region does,” Hartman said.

Any police pursuit of an ATV can be problematic, he said.

“Ultimately, there is a safety issue. No one wants to cause anyone injury or death because of a pursuit, and you're likely talking about summary offenses, which is the lowest threshold,” he said. “The minute a pursuit becomes dangerous, you have to cease and desist.”

State police Trooper Todd Sherle of the Somerset station filed the complaints against the Felkers.

“Those laws (regulating ATVs) are difficult to enforce because you have rules regarding limitations during high-speed pursuits. While you have some drivers who pull over, unfortunately, most attempt to speed away. Then they are able to turn off into a field or woods, where patrol cars cannot go,” Sherle said.

Paul Peirce is a reporter for Trib Total Media.

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