A risky ride? Death of ATV driver highlights importance of safety precautions
Had it not been for the single beam of light shooting into the night sky and acting as a beacon to a passing driver, the body of Michael Klein likely would not have been found until the following morning.
It was the lone headlight on Klein’s all-terrain vehicle, which had pinned him underneath. Despite nearly a lifetime of experience on ATVs, Klein had ventured out for his last ride into the darkness without a helmet.
The death in Dutch Flat was nearly unimaginable to his mother, Betsy Klein, who said he had never even been injured in his many years of driving ATVs and motorcycles.
“He was trained on a two-wheeler since he was 5,” Betsy Klein said.
Klein, 42, was killed Sept. 23, when he attempted to climb his 1998 Suzuki four-wheeler up a steep embankment in darkness. He was not wearing a helmet or protective gear, California Highway Patrol Officer George Kirbyson said, and died when his ATV fell backward on top of him.
“The area was too dark,” Kirbyson said. “All it could take is a dip or a drop.”
Klein’s death highlights a safety debate that has been argued on a national level since the 1980s, when hundreds of ATV riders began getting injured or killed on the increasingly popular rides. While several states now require that drivers have licenses for the heavy machines, which reach upwards of 70 mph, California is not one of them. Since 1982, California also has recorded the most ATV-related fatalities in the country.
All-terrain vehicle enthusiasts say ATVs are not inherently dangerous, but drivers must keep safety a priority.
“You should always wear helmets,” said Don Dwire, the owner of Grass Valley’s Sierra Motor Sports, which sells ATVs. “I don’t get on without a helmet on.”
All-terrain vehicles are defined by the Department of Motor Vehicles as having three or more wheels, room for no more than one passenger, and handlebar navigation instead of a steering wheel.
Between 1982 and 2001, 4,541 ATV-related deaths were reported in the United States, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. In 2002, the year of the latest available statistics, 357 people were reported killed in ATV crashes. The four states trailing California in the number of ATV fatalities during this time were Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan and Texas.
From 1997 to 2001, ATV-related injuries treated at hospitals nationwide increased from 54,700 to 111,700; an jump of 104 percent, the safety commission reported.
During the same time, from 1997 to 2002, sales for all-terrain vehicles climbed 90 percent.
ATVs account for half of all vehicle sales at Sierra Motor Sports, which also sells off-road motorcycles, Dwire said. The ATVs sell for anywhere between $1,700 and $8,000.
“You have a lot of farms around here,” Dwire said. “There is also hunting.”
What potential buyers won’t find at the safety-conscious owner’s store are three-wheel vehicles, which have been in steady decline since the 1980s, when they were deemed unsafe by the federal government.
“They are dangerous,” Dwire said.
He said in the 1980s, the major manufacturers of all-terrain vehicles, such as Suzuki and Honda, were sued by victims of accidents and their families. The manufacturers, in turn, created more stringent guidelines for buyers and sellers. All ATVs in Dwire’s store, for example, have age requirements, helmet laws and other guidelines riveted onto the vehicle bodies.
All customers at Sierra Motor Sports have to sign a safety agreement, and all employees have to sign a form saying they understand the rules of selling ATVs to different age groups, Dwire said.
Age is an important part of vehicle safety, because of increased dangers to children who use oversized ATVs. According to a Consumer Product Safety Commission report, injuries to children under 16 rose by 57 percent between 1997 and 2001. Those injuries happened most frequently when they were riding ATVs larger than the recommended size for them.
“A lot of people miss-anticipate the weight of the vehicle,” highway patrol Officer Kirbyson said.
If the ATV rolls over on the driver, injury isn’t just possible, it’s probable, he said.
Sierra Motor Sports sells ATVs for three different age groups, based on the size of the engine; 6 years and older, 12 and older, and 16 and older.
In California, there are several guidelines and two age groups for ATV operators, said Armando Botello, a spokesman with the Department of Motor Vehicles in Sacramento.
No one under 18 years may drive one unless one of the following criteria is met:
• The driver has passed a state-approved safety course.
• He or she is under the supervision of an adult who has passed the safety course and has a state-issued certificate, which is different than the licenses required in some states.
• The driver has a state certificate.
No one younger than 14 may operate an ATV unless all of the previous requirements are met and the child is under the supervision of a parent or guardian, Botello said.
In addition to those rules, ATVs cannot carry more than one passenger in addition to the driver – most are single-seaters – and all riders must wear a helmet, according to the California Vehicle Code.
It may never be known if Michael Klein would have survived his crash had he been wearing a helmet or other protective gear, but according to the highway patrol, Klein’s first mistake was riding in complete darkness and by himself.
“It was a very big shock,” Betsy Klein said of her son’s death. “It still is.”
California’s ATV RULES
– All riders must wear helmets.
– No passengers allowed on single-seaters.
– One passenger maximum with driver on two-seaters.
– No license or certification required over age 18.
– Drivers age 14 to 18 must pass safety course, be supervised by adult with safety certificate, or have a state certificate. Drivers under 14 must pass all three requirements and be supervised by a parent.
Source: California DMV
Top 10 states with the most ATV-related deaths, 1982-2001:
1. California, 278
2. Pennsylvania, 264
3. Texas, 206
4. Michigan, 205
5. New York, 199
6. West Virginia, 194
7. Florida, 173
8. Kentucky, 168
9. North Carolina, 164
10. Tennessee, 158
Source: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
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