Riders' risk

Thursday, January 25, 2007
Hundreds of ATV riders go to St. Joe State Park in Park Hills, Mo., to ride the 2,000 acres that are open to off-road vehicle use. Eight hundred of those acres are sand flats. (Southeast Missourian file photos)

A fatal traffic accident Jan. 3 involving an all-terrain vehicle was a reminder that riders should operate the popular recreational vehicles with care, law enforcement officials say.

Kevin A. Poppen, 30, of McClure, Ill., was killed in Alexander County, Ill., near the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge. Poppen, driving an ATV, failed to stop at an intersection and struck the right front tire of a passing tractor-trailer, state police said. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Police say riders can easily forget the risks of ATVs because of the vehicles' recreational reputation. While children as young as 6 years old are legally able to ride them, ATVs can be as dangerous to operate as a car.

"It's awfully easy to have a wreck" on an ATV, said Cape Girardeau Sheriff's Lt. Vincent Diebold. "Ridges on farm and county roads will jerk your ATV off the road. It's easy to lose control until you know how to use them."

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says ATV accidents have killed nearly 6,500 Americans over the past 23 years, more than 2,000 of them children under the age of 16. The Missouri State Highway Patrol reported 210 ATV crashes statewide in 2005, with 172 injuries and 18 fatalities.

From 2002 through 2004, Missouri ranked 13th among the states in ATV deaths with a total of 46. Kentucky ranked first with 106 deaths.

Missouri and Illinois do not require a license to drive an ATV, nor safety training or testing, according to the All Terrain Vehicle Safety Institute, based in California.

While there is no national legislation requiring that riders have the proper training and safety gear before driving an ATV, North Carolina adopted the institute's model for safety in legislation last year, the first state to do so. That law requires drivers to pass a safety certification program and adhere to recommendations matching riders' age to engine size. The law also limits the age of drivers to 8 years old driving in public, such as in parks and trails where ATV use is permitted under a parent's supervision.

Diebold said most ATV owners in Cape Girardeau County comply with road rules requiring ATVs be kept off county and state roads and to be used only on personal property.

Vehicle registration is required in Missouri, he added.

"We don't run into a lot of problems here with ATVs," he said. "Most people that have them are pretty safe with them."

The most common complaint is from people who call the department with trespassing issues. In rural areas particularly, Diebold said, people can forget they may be riding on someone else's property.

He pointed out that while children as young as 6 can legally ride ATVs while under a parent's supervision, parents can be charged with child endangerment if police see a child under 16 riding without a parent's immediate supervision, even if on private property.

Helmets and protective gloves are recommended for everyone including children, he said, but are not a legal requirement.

Diebold, an ATV enthusiast himself, said he's seen an increase of ATVs in the county and considers them safer today in part due to larger sizes affording more riding stability.

While Cape Girardeau County seems to have a peaceful coexistence with ATV owners, that is not the case in Union County, Ill., where Sheriff David Livesay said the department is deluged with complaints about ATV riders trespassing and destroying property and crops. The problem is severe enough that a patrol unit was created to address the problem, he said.

"They are very popular in Union County. Unfortunately there is no recreational use for the vehicles in the area," he said, such as ride parks.

Drivers must limit their ATV experiences to their own property, Livesay said.

Violators risk criminal charges for damage to property and trespassing in addition to citations for riding on public roads, he said. The vehicles are seized until the court sets a fine.

Besides trespassing and destroying personal property, Livesay said, some ATV drivers are drawn to the nearby Shawnee National Forest, where ATV riding is prohibited.

The sheriff's department works with park agents and the Illinois State Police to curb ATV abuses, he said.

Space a consideration

Livesay added that people buy ATVs without considering where they will be able to ride them. Parents especially buy ATVs for their children as toys.

"People need to realize they need enough private property to enjoy the ATVs they buy," he said.

Otherwise, they need to have access to authorized parks and trails to get the full benefit. Most often, users without significant space of their own end up on the roadways or trespassing in others' fields they may not know they have entered.

As in Missouri, state and county roads are off-limits to ATVs. Livesay said the off-limits zone extends 15 feet on either side the center of a road. Depending on the road, the zone could include the shoulder and ditch.

Livesay, who is also an ATV owner, recalled three fatalities involving ATVs in the past five or six years. All were single-vehicle accidents involving driver error, he said.

Pat Sparks, co-owner of Dale's Motorcycle Center in Poplar Bluff, Mo., said ATVs are a popular item in her showroom. She said buyers are provided information on free safety courses and DVDs.

For a $5 annual membership, ATV owners can become a member of the SEMO ATV Riders group. The group, which has more than 300 members, meets to discuss industry news and places to ride legally, said Sparks, who is the group's secretary.

"We do promote safety and safety equipment and following the law," she said.

The All-Terrain Vehicle Safety Institute, a not-for-profit division of the trade association the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, was formed in 1988 to implement a national program of ATV safety education and awareness. It offers rider training at more than 1,200 sites nationwide. The closest to Cape Girardeau is in Jonesboro, Ill., said spokesman Jun Villegas.

He said the institute encourages riders to follow a number of rules: wear a helmet and protective gear, don't drive on public roads, don't drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, follow manufacturer guidelines, never carry a passenger on a single-rider ATV, ride only on approved legal trails and take a safety course.

For more information, visit the institute's Web site at www.atvsafety.org.


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