The ATV culture includes loose regulations -- and kids' funerals
Diezel De Rupp "enjoyed doing his little dance to the Dubstep" -- electronic music propelled by drumbeats and heavy bass. In a photo, the 5-year-old looks delighted, his hair brushed upward in a peak and his shirtfront covered by the Ultimate Fighting Championship's TapouT logo, celebrating martial arts.
The boy lived in the Denver area, but on June 10, 2012, he and his father, Jeremy Rupp, were visiting friends on a farm on the eastern Colorado plains, enjoying a Polaris 500cc all-terrain vehicle, or ATV. That's not unusual in the West, where roughly 3 million of the nation's 11 million ATVs are found. Western ATVers drive more miles than riders elsewhere, and 80 percent of that driving is recreational.
Diezel De Rupp was on the back of the ATV as a local 6-year-old boy drove it around the farmhouse yard. Left unsupervised for a few minutes, the 6-year-old drove to the edge of a nearby gravel pit, where he accidentally went over a 15-foot dropoff. The young driver jumped clear, but the ATV landed on Diezel, killing him.
This heart-rending story comes from the boy's obituary, the local newspaper, and Travis Sides, one of the prosecutors who pressed felony criminal negligence charges against all four adults who were with the boys shortly before the accident and knew they were on the ATV. "It's very sad. No one wanted this to happen," says Sides, who hopes to raise awareness about the risks that ATVs pose.
It's been a chronic problem since ATVs became popular in the 1980s. If past trends hold, more than 400 people this year -- including dozens of children -- will be killed and more than 100,000 seriously injured in ATV wrecks nationwide. That's fewer than in the peak year, 2006, probably because people have become more cautious and are also less able to afford ATVs. (Sales plunged 70 percent during the recession.) The situation is still "awful," says Sue DeLoretto Rabe, an Oregonian who helped found a national group, Concerned Families for ATV Safety. She speaks from experience: Her 10-year-old son, Kyle, died in a wreck on her farm 11 years ago. He was wearing a helmet, but his ATV tipped over as he drove downhill, and he was pinned and suffocated by its sheer weight.
Recent deaths include Kaytee Eisenbarth, a 12-year-old who, on April 7, lost control of the ATV she was driving near Fort Lupton, Colo., and rolled it; like Diezel De Rupp, she was not wearing a helmet. Miranda Anderson, a 7-year-old in Utah, was riding an ATV on May 12 when the adult driver steered too close to a tree and a branch pierced her neck.
Loose regulations, the industry's marketing and political prowess, and the growing popularity of "adventure" recreation are some of the factors behind the injuries and deaths. Western rural culture has always tolerated risky behavior -- rodeos, for instance, or shooting at anything that moves (or doesn't), or driving too fast across empty spaces, sometimes while drunk.
An ATV dealer near the farm where Diezel De Rupp died, for instance, has a fun slogan -- "The Super Toy Store" --and markets the danger with a macabre logo, a drawing of a bloody skull. "If you are looking for fast and furious or just something to infuse a little adrenaline into your weekend," says the store's website, "then you have come to the right place."
ATVs like the one Diezel De Rupp was on can go as fast as 65 mph, weigh 500 pounds or more, and are notoriously unstable, but regulations are just a step above those for bicycles, even for kids. Most states set no minimum age for being a passenger or for driving ATVs on private land. While some states prohibit very young kids from operating ATVs on public land, it's generally OK if someone older with a driver's license provides "supervision." Utah is the only Western state with an absolute minimum age -- 8 years old -- for driving four-wheel ATVs on public lands. "They don't like any laws against their great machines," says Rabe.
The industry's ATV Safety Institute recommends relatively small machines for kids, and some states have laws to enforce it. But many families ignore the advice because the small ATVs have less pizzazz and are quickly outgrown. Meanwhile, the industry's institute says that a minimum age (12) should be set only for those driving on public land. Many safety advocates like Rabe want much stricter age limits everywhere. The American Academy of Pediatrics, with 60,000 doctors as members, says flatly: "Children are not developmentally capable of operating these heavy, complex machines. ... No child under the age of 16 should drive or ride an ATV."
Studies show that states that prohibit young kids from driving ATVs see a reduction in serious injuries. Yet many ATV fans continue to resist such regulations. A few months ago, on Rabe's home turf, the Oregon Senate decided to eliminate a rule that says off-road motorcycle drivers must be at least 7. (That deregulation stalled in the House.)
Verdicts have been reached for three of the defendants in Diezel De Rupp's death. The parents of the 6-year-old driver pled guilty to misdemeanor child abuse in May. A judge found the third grownup not guilty because she was not a parent of either boy. Diezel's father, Jeremy Rupp, faces a trial on the felony charge in August. "Look within the cultural context where this occurred," says Rupp's lawyer, Charlie Fife, noting the popularity of ATVs in rural areas. "No matter where the line is drawn (on regulating ATVs), people are going to be hurt. It's better to leave it to the parents than to bureaucrats." That's the word from this branch of Western libertarianism.
"I haven't seen a single person here who thinks it's outright wrong to have kids on ATVs. They understand there's a risk. Everyone has grown up with it," says David Martinez, the Sterling Journal-Advocate reporter covering the trials. In the father's case, Martinez adds, a lot of people around Sterling believe that "the punishment has already been served."