Last Mother’s Day, Jaret Graham, 14, climbed on the back of an all-terrain vehicle driven by his 12-year-old cousin. As they sped down a paved stretch of country road in west Texas, the 12-year-old lost control, went into a ditch and fell off the vehicle, injuring his leg. Jaret was thrown off and hit his head on a cattle guard, a barrier made from steel pipes. He died instantly.
ATV tragedies like these – on roadways, rather than trails — are widespread and have increased in recent years. The latest U.S. figures indicate that ATV crashes kill more than 700 people and injure 100,000 others every year, with nearly two-thirds of the fatal accidents occurring on public or private roads.
The accidents keep happening even though all ATVs sold in the U.S. carry a warning label stating that the vehicles are not to be driven on the road: their high center of gravity and low-pressure tires mean they’re likely to tip over or go out of control on pavement. What’s more, the vehicles aren’t held to federal safety standards for cars and trucks, such as the requirement for seat belts, even though they can reach highway speeds.
Nevertheless, a push is under way in states, counties and towns across the country to open more roads to ATVs. In 2013 alone, three states passed laws giving authorities the power to open certain public roads to ATVs. Since the beginning of 2012, local governments in at least 18 more states have opened specified roads to ATVs or have considered such a move.
“We are moving backward on this issue,” said Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America.
While the Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates hazardous products and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration oversees traffic safety, neither federal agency has authority over where people ride ATVs.
Meanwhile, news accounts provide a litany of deadly accidents:
- In August, Andrea Allen, 22, was carrying three toddlers on an ATV in Center Point, Ind., when she veered off the pavement and went into a ditch. The vehicle caught fire, and Allen and two of the toddlers, one of whom was her son, died.
- That same month, 11-year-old Chase Roush was killed when the ATV he was driving on a road in Racine, Ohio, crossed the center line and was hit by an oncoming car.
- In October, Tony Stacy, 52, died near Bakersfield, Calif., when his ATV collided with a pickup truck.
- The following week in North Plymouth, Mass., 25-year-old Joseph Vandini was killed when he lost control while driving an ATV. He crashed into a curb and a tree, and was thrown through a tattoo parlor’s plate glass window, causing fatal head injuries.
Safety advocates fear accidents such as these will become more common as efforts to open more paved surfaces to ATVs gain traction. Last summer, Washington State passed a law allowing ATVs on roads with a speed limit of 35 mph or lower in seven rural counties. The law also gave counties and municipalities in the rest of the state the power to decide whether to do the same. Now state lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow counties to also open roads with higher speed limits to ATVs. Lawmakers in Missouri and Michigan in 2013 gave local governments similar discretion.
An Iowa measure backed by riders groups that would have opened country roads across the state to ATVs stalled in committee but local initiatives are moving ahead.
Local jurisdictions in Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Wisconsin, Utah, Vermont and Virginia have considered or approved such actions since the beginning of 2012.
“It’s a very unfortunate trend,” said Robert Adler, acting chairman of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is studying ATV safety with the aim of possibly writing new regulations governing design of the vehicles. ATVs are getting bigger and more powerful, he said, “taking a machine that is quite dangerous and increasing the hazards.”
Most states still prohibit ATVs from streets, often with exceptions for farmers or others who use ATVs for work or for riders of trails that cross roads. But riders groups and local ATV clubs have made headway by arguing that opening more roads to ATVs will draw tourists and provide local residents a cheap way to motor around.
Public health advocates say such moves undermine safety messages and confuse the public. “They think it will bring increased tourism revenue to various states and jurisdictions, but at what cost?” said Weintraub.
Rural Tippecanoe County, Ind., is considering opening more country roads to ATVs. Jay Jackson, executive director of American Bikers Aimed Toward Education (ABATE) Indiana, a motorcyclists’ rights group that also represents off-road riders, has spoken in favor of the measure. He said accidents often involve alcohol use or reckless riding, and that risks can be managed through education and regulations such as requiring driver’s licenses, as Indiana law does. “We’re not suggesting you see these in downtown Chicago driving around and mixing with taxis,” he said.
The companies that make the machines say they disagree. “Off highway vehicles are not designed to be ridden on roads,” said Paul Vitrano, executive vice president and general counsel for the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, a trade group representing ATV manufacturers. Vitrano said his group “vigorously opposes” efforts to open roads to ATVs. However, the manufacturers want to remain on good terms with rider groups, and some critics have questioned how hard they try to discourage on-road use of ATVs.
Sue DeLoretto-Rabe, an Oregon resident who co-founded Concerned Families for ATV Safety after her young son died in an ATV crash, says the industry should be taking a more proactive stance against the new spate of laws. She was similarly disappointed when the industry stood by and let riders’ groups defeat a bill that would have banned kids under 12 from using ATVs in her state. “In reality, they’re all about selling ATVs,” she said.
The institute doesn’t have a lobbying budget that specifically targets the issue, but Vitrano said the organization often sends letters to lawmakers considering bills to open roads to ATVs, In Washington State last year, its lobbyist hand-delivered such letters.
In addition, the organization operates a nonprofit called the ATV Safety Institute, aimed at teaching safe riding, including staying off roads.
A recent study from Iowa suggests the safety message is not reaching riders.
The Iowa ATV Injury Prevention Taskforce surveyed 4,300 kids between 2010 and 2012 and found 75 percent of those who had been on an ATV had ridden on public roads. “Somehow we’re failing to have them understand what’s safe and what’s not safe,” said Gerene Denning, a safety researcher at the University of Iowa who worked on the study.
Rocky Graham, Jaret’s father, said he worries that opening roads to ATVs will put more kids in a risky situation that they don’t have the judgment to handle. “When your kid gets on that four-wheeler and you’re not around, if he’s 12 he’s going to think like a 12-year-old.”
Denning says ATV riders get mixed messages – on the one hand, riders are cautioned against high speeds, but some ATVs are made to reach 80 miles per hour. Even though ATVs, for safety reasons, are intended to carry a single rider, some have seats that can fit more than one person. While public health officials warn about riding on roads, some sheriff’s departments give it a green light.
And, within the broader community of ATV enthusiasts, differing factions send contradictory messages. One influential national group, the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council, a nonprofit that receives some funding from ATV manufacturers, appears to be adding to the confusion. The group, which promotes safe, responsible riding on public and private lands, officially opposes riding ATVs on roads. “ATVs are not designed for use on paved roads. Period. That’s just a fact,” said Russ Ehnes, the group’s executive director.
Yet records show that the organization’s board president, Dan Kleen, spoke in favor of Iowa’s bill to open more roads to ATVs in October. He appeared at a committee meeting of five senators and five representatives convened by the legislature to study the issue and make recommendations.
Ehnes said Kleen was not representing the NOHVCC when he made the statements. Kleen did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But the confusion doesn’t appear limited to Iowa. In Washington State, another person affiliated with NOHVCC, Gary Prewitt, testified in favor of opening more roads to ATV access last year. Prewitt is listed as a “state partner” on the NOHVCC website, but said that he did not represent the organization when advocating for the new law.
Meanwhile, Rod Taylor, a lawyer who provides legal services to ABATE affiliates in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, has laid out on his website a five-point strategy for getting counties to open their roads to ATVS. He recommended that advocates “preach the environmental benefits” and “note that constituents would save money by using their ATV to run to the grocery store instead of their trucks.”
Jackson, of ABATE Indiana, said he sees no harm in opening country roads to ATVs and suggested manufacturers’ warnings about riding on ATVs may be more about legal liability than physical safety. “We live in such a litigious society that everybody’s worried.” ATVs are plastered with warnings, he said, adding that “some of them are perhaps a little over the top.”
Meanwhile, some people advocating for changes in the law seem unaware that ATVs are unsafe to ride on paved streets. Jim Schuessler, the head of the Forest County (Wisc.) Economic Development Partnership, was one of a number of citizens involved in conversations that led his town, Townsend, to open municipal roads to ATVs a decade ago. Now, town residents use their ATVs all the time, to go to the local dump, the bank or to have lunch in town. He recently told a local paper that it was the best economic decision his town had made. But when asked by FairWarning whether he felt uncomfortable advocating something that manufacturers warn against, he replied: “I wasn’t aware of it.”
While saying it can’t prevent states and counties from opening roads to ATVs, the CPSC tries to educate consumers and lawmakers. “We talk to the states and the counties and we try to reinforce with them the dangers of changing their laws. They don’t always listen to us,” Adler said.
But, he said, “I’m just not sure the safety message standing alone with no other changes is sufficient. I think we have to talk to manufacturers about considering some redesign in the product.”
The agency has worked on a new ATV safety rule since 2006, and officials aren’t saying when it might be issued. Speaking hypothetically, Adler said the rule could bring changes that include redesigning seats to make it more difficult to carry passengers, making ATVs more stable or setting upper limits on the speeds ATVs can travel.
Graham still is haunted by the ATV accident that took the life of his son Jaret, whom he describes as a good kid and a promising baseball player. Graham says he hopes better law enforcement and other safety measures will spare other families the pain his family has suffered. “They say it gets better. No, it doesn’t get better,” he said. “I guess you just harden yourself and learn to live with it easier.”
FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org) is a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Los Angeles that focuses on public health and safety issues.