Concerns mount on teen use of ATVs

Saturday, August 27th 2005, 12:05 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (AP) _ Galan Matherly has been haunted for four years by the thought that his son might still be alive had he been wearing a helmet.

``We had told him and told him and told him to wear it,'' said Matherly, whose son, Jaeman, died in 2001 of injuries suffered in a four-wheel, all-terrain vehicle accident. Jaeman was 15.

``But maybe we didn't push the issue as much as we should have. Now we can't live exactly the same as we used to.''

The Mustang family doesn't hunt or fish much any more. Those were two of Jaeman's favorite pastimes. Matherly's other son, Seth, 13, has adjusted to not spending nearly every day with his older brother. The four-wheelers began collecting dust.

``What we've realized is that you can't just quit living. Our youngest son loves motorcycles, and you can't just put them in a glass bubble and not let them do anything,'' Matherly said.

Now Seth always wears a helmet, while Jaeman is one of nearly 6,000 people nationwide who have died in all-terrain vehicle-related accidents since 1982.

In 2003, there were more than 550 deaths, a number that will rise as 2003 death certificates are still being reported, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency that regulates ATV safety.

Oklahoma has seen at least 80 deaths during the commission's reporting period of 1982-2003.

More than 125,500 injuries have been brought to emergency rooms nationwide during the 21-year reporting period.

The rate of increase of injuries and deaths has outpaced the increase in all-terrain vehicles' use. The commission says the number of four-wheelers used reached 5.5 million in 2002.

Still, Consumer Product Safety Commission Chairman Hal Stratton sent out a memo last month mandating an in-depth review of the all-terrain vehicle after watching the injury and death numbers rise during the past several years.

One of the main aspects the commission will be looking at is training. Dealers are required to offer free training to first-time buyers. A $100 refund on their all-terrain vehicle is given after they complete the half-day course.

But the ATV Safety Institute, which conducts the courses, estimates only about 1 in 3 new buyers participate.

``We think this could definitely be improved,'' spokesman Mike Mount said.

Stratton said a used four-wheeler market could be a problem. In this situation, buyers would have to pay $125 for a safety course.

He said the commission is looking into whether training could be required. Oklahoma does not require the training.

There is also no minimum age requirement, no limit on number of passengers and no law governing the use of safety gear, Mount said.

``There could definitely be stronger legislation enacted in Oklahoma,'' he said.

The consumer products commission also is considering requiring better warning labels, and making the four-wheelers more stable and age/size appropriate.

Dr. Mark Brandenburg strongly suggests parents keep kids off four-wheelers entirely.

``This is not a unique recommendation. Experts all over the country have said this,'' said the Saint Francis Hospital emergency room doctor who conducts studies on all-terrain vehicle-related injuries and deaths.

``Children don't have the mental capacity or eye-hand coordination to operate these big machines,'' he said.

Brandenburg's most recent study focused on 190 four-wheeler-related cases seen at Saint Francis Hospital in Tulsa since spring 2003. The report shows about half of patients suffered head injuries, and only about a quarter of them said they were wearing helmets. Head injuries also were the leading cause of death. In the youngest group of children, ages 1 to 5 years old, every single child suffered head injuries such as concussions and skull fractures.

Josiah Blair was riding through a pasture in Chelsea recently when he turned too quickly, causing his all-terrain vehicle to roll over him. The 9-year-old was not wearing a helmet and died at the scene, the patrol said.

Brandenburg wants manufacturers to lower the vehicles' centers of gravity, noting rollovers usually cause severe injuries or death, even when helmets are worn by riders.

This statement is true for J.E. Mullins of Purcell.

The 77-year-old rode his all-terrain vehicle to pick peaches on his farm one Sunday evening in June and never returned. His wife, Mattie, went to look for him and found he had hit a ditch and was thrown from the four-wheeler. The machine rolled over, pinning him to the ground. Neighbors came to help, but he had died almost instantly under their peach tree.

Mattie Mullins referred to her all-terrain vehicle as their ``horse.''

``We used it to herd cattle. We used it for pretty much everything,'' she said. ``I thought it was safe, and then one day it just turned over and got him.''

She said she wants everyone to know how important it is to be careful. ``You never know what could happen.''

After more than 10 years of using four-wheelers to get around their 700-acre farm, Mattie said she's selling the vehicle, along with most of the farm.

``Losing him will be a big adjustment. I just can't take care of things by myself now,'' she said. ``We loved each other terribly.''