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Safety concerns rise with ATV sales

| Monday, June 9, 2003

It was the one day Karl A. Reese Jr. of Apollo should have worn his helmet to ride his all-terrain vehicle.

And as luck happened, it was the one day that he didn't.

Four years ago, Reese, now 24, was driving his four-wheel quad up a hill when the vehicle became airborne before doing a nose dive, sending him flying head first over the handlebars.

Reese landed on his back, and his ATV, weighing hundreds of pounds, landed on top of him, shattering almost all of the bones in his face.

"I just remember it hurting," Reese said. "And my dad was telling me to breath in my nose and out my mouth because there was a big hole where my nose was supposed to be."

Reese spent almost a week at UPMC Presbyterian undergoing reconstructive surgery on his face.

"Pretty much everything from my upper jaw to my cheekbones to the lower part of my eye socket now has titanium in it," he said.

Reese said if he had been wearing his helmet at the time of the accident, he probably would have just suffered a broken nose.

Injuries double in 5 years

But nevertheless, Reese was lucky.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 357 people were killed that year in ATV accidents nationwide, including four in Pennsylvania.

The commission ranked Pennsylvania and West Virginia among the top six states for ATV-related deaths between 1982 and 2001.

Similarly, from 1997 to 2002, ATV-related injuries rose by 104 percent, from 54,700 to 111,700, the consumer watchdog group found.

"It's a risky sports vehicle," said Ken Giles, a spokesman for the commission. "You're never going to have zero risk."

Yet ATV popularity continues to skyrocket among adults and children, perhaps accounting for some of the increase in fatal accidents and injuries.

Between 1997 and 2001, the number of ATV drivers rose by 4.3 million nationwide, the commission reported.

"The factors are all so tangled and interrelated," Giles said. "Our statistical method cannot untangle it."

ATVs account for about half of the business of Crossroads Motorsports in Gibsonia, which bought out the ATV business of Dirty Harry's Bicycles in Verona last year, said company president and CEO Joe Marnell.

"They are wonderful units," said Marnell, citing a long list of commercial and farming applications for quads.

Even Reese said he still enjoys riding his ATV for recreation, albeit with more caution.

"I am more aware of what an ATV is capable of now," he said. "You can't take it for granted, because it can hurt you if you do the wrong things with it."

Misuse and lack of precaution are the main factors contributing to ATV accidents, Marnell said.

"An ATV was never meant to be a baby-sitter," Marnell said. "They are motorized vehicles that require parental supervision, not toys."

ATVs are safe as long as people ride them responsibly in accordance with the way the manufacturer intended, Marnell said.

There are strict age guidelines for ATV use for children, and parents must monitor vehicle use at all times, he said.

Crossroads ATV customers must complete a rider safety course and one manufacturer even provides free helmets to children, according to Marnell.

No place to ride

Although the popularity of ATVs continues to soar, there's a limited amount of public land in western Pennsylvania where people are allowed to use them.

It's like selling a video game system without any games.

"People are scrambling to look for places to ride," said Bill Langer, a sales representative at Gatto Cycle Shop in Tarentum. "There are less and less places to go unless you want to travel for two hours."

As a result, some ATV owners ride illegally on private property or in restricted wilderness areas such as Crooked Creek Lake in Ford City and Northmoreland Park in Allegheny Township.

"Within our park, you aren't allowed to use ATVs," said Crooked Creek Lake Park Ranger Rick McKee. "But that doesn't mean that it doesn't happen. We're always chasing them."

ATV noise scares away wildlife, and the vehicles cause severe erosion by destroying wooded and planted areas, McKee said. Riders also present a hazard to hikers and mountain bikers, he said.

"They cause a lot of damage," said Adrian Horvath, maintenance and development coordinator for Westmoreland County Parks and Recreation. "I've ridden ATVs, and I enjoy them, but there needs to be a place for people to go and use them."

Mary Bowyer, director of tourist operations for the Kiski Junction Railroad in Gilpin, said ATV riders gain illegal access to the railroad's property from the Armstrong and Freeport trails.

The riders tear up the ballast rock that holds the railroad ties in place and gamble with their own lives every time they ride along the tracks, Bowyer said.

"You can't imagine how many extremely close calls there have been," she said. "They come up on you so fast that you can't see them. It's like committing suicide if you try to tangle with a freight train."

The speed and mobility of ATVs make it almost impossible for police or railroad personnel to catch their riders, said Bowyer, who reports each trespassing incident to the state police.

Kiski Township Police Sgt. Larry Ondrizek said ATV riders caught on private property without proper authorization can be fined as much as $300 and have their vehicles impounded.

"The people who are selling these things aren't telling their customers that they don't have a right to ride on private property," Ondrizek said. "It's a bad situation. They have no respect."

A state law that took effect in 2001 requires all ATVs used for recreation to be registered with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The law was designed to reduce riding in unauthorized areas by increasing fines and requiring insurance coverage and license plates.

Licensing fees and fines collected were to enable the DCNR to award grants to municipalities and nonprofit organizations to build ATV access areas.

But state support for local ATV trails has yet to materialize. Most of the more than 200 miles of trails in state forests designated for ATV use are in the central portion of the state.

"ATV owners contribute a lot of tax dollars," Horvath said. "There should be a place for them to ride."

The problem could be one of jurisdiction, Horvath said.

"They need to build trails that are 15, 20, 25 miles long," he said. "Who bears responsibility for building that large of an inter-county trail?"

Staff writer David Hunt of the Tribune-Review in Greensburg contributed to this story.

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