It's time to reduce the West's ATV carnage


At least 24 people have been killed in all-terrain-vehicle accidents in the West since mid-March, the onset of warm riding weather.

A 9-year-old girl in Arizona was among them. So were a 10-year-old boy in California, an off-duty sheriff's deputy in Utah, and 16-year-old girls in Wyoming and Arizona.

One especially noticeable ATV wreck occurred in Utah on April 18: A likable ex-Congressman, Bill Orton, drove his ATV over a drop-off, crashed and died in the famous Little Sahara dunes playground. He was 60 years old, left behind a wife and two kids, and the Salt Lake Tribune called it a great loss for his state.

Also, a man lost his right hand, and a 6-year-old boy and a 9-year-old boy suffered serious nonfatal injuries in other Western ATV wrecks in the same two-month period.

It's just the latest evidence of how the sport needs safety regulations and a consistently responsible leadership. Often the accident victims are kids. Frequently, the victims are not wearing helmets. And ATV design is another factor: the vehicle's abundance of horsepower and the risk of rollovers.

Yet the industry -- manufacturers and dealers -- and the sport's leaders resist tougher state laws and regulations to improve safety. That includes basic measures, such as requiring helmets for all ATV drivers and a reasonable minimum age for driving ATVs.

Instead, they often glamorize ATVs with event promotions, news stories, and gung-ho ads that guarantee riding thrills. The ATV magazines, for instance, are filled with "ready-to-race ... hard-riding" machines whose brand names encourage recklessness: the Polaris Outlaw, Kawasaki's Brute Force, Can-Am's Renegade.

The magazines show people throttling ATVs up sand dunes, through creeks, into deep mud and over rocks, or twisting along forest and desert trails. Often they're "pulling wheelies" -- accelerating with such force that the front wheels pop off the ground. Or they're "airing it out" (becoming completely airborne) coming down for "big hits" (hard landings).

"Give Your Adrenaline a Reason to Secrete Itself ... Mayhem Awaits," headlines shout in a full-page ad for a Kawasaki 750 Teryx. There's a big photo of the Teryx churning sand, and more headlines about "digital fuel injection" and a "speed-tuned suspension." Small type at the bottom of the ad says "Warning: The Teryx can be hazardous to operate ... Always wear (a) helmet ... Avoid excessive speeds and stunt driving. Be extra careful on difficult terrain."

Of course, no one wants accidents. But most Western states let ATVers do their thing with almost no regulations at all.

Only a few even set a minimum age for drivers. Utah is one, probably making an effort to address this bloody statistic: At least 56 kids  -- children under the age of 16 -- have died in ATV wrecks in Utah since 1982, according to a federal ATV safety Web site. But Utah's age limit for driving in the wild country remains astonishingly weak: "No one under 8 may operate an ATV on public lands."
In a typical safety battle, Nevada's Legislature just passed a measure requiring all Nevada ATVs to be licensed with the state. Reckless drivers could be tracked down if witnesses got their license numbers. But Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons vetoed the licensing requirement, saying he didn't like the modest fee of maybe $20 or $30 per vehicle. The Nevada Legislature, however, might muster enough support to override that veto.

Laws and regulations aside, we need to adjust the overall image of ATVs to make the dangers clearer. That includes everyone who can play a role -- those of us who are directly involved as well as those on the sidelines, such as journalists and politicians.

All too often, families -- parents, teens and kids -- don't understand the danger until it's too late.

Near New River, Ariz., on May 20, three teenagers were driving around on two ATVs. The Arizona Republic reports that the ATVs were "following each other ... at high speeds (45 to 50 mph)" when one crashed into the other. A 16-year-old girl, Taylor Wisdom, was thrown off with so much force that her helmet came off. She suffered major head trauma and died while being airlifted to a hospital.
In the turmoil and mourning after her death, dozens of her friends commented on a Web site, sharing stories about how she'd been active in soccer and dance at her high school. They recalled how she was known for her friendly smile. And one remembered: "SHE LOVED TO RIDE!!!"

Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is the magazine's senior editor in Bozeman, Montana.

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