By Deb McKee
TERRE HAUTE — In the past week in the Wabash Valley, one man died and two were hospitalized with serious head injuries after unrelated accidents involving all-terrain vehicles.
The deaths are indicative of a dramatic rise in the number of ATV accidents, which authorities say corresponds to an increase in sales of the vehicles.
Gary R. Cornwell, 59, of Georgetown, Ill., was seriously injured Saturday from head injuries after an accident at Mule Ridge ATV park on Indiana 63, near Hillsdale. Witnesses said he tried to climb a steep hill when the ATV tipped over backwards.
Brett A. Eitel, 22, of Marshall, Ill. died from injuries he suffered in an ATV crash Saturday on Livingston Road, near Marshall, Ill.
Wayne Smith, 49, of Jasonville was seriously injured May 22 when he lost control of his ATV while driving in Jasonville on a county road. The ATV rolled over him, according to a news release from Indiana Conservation Officer Max Winchell. Smith was carrying a passenger, 29-year-old Shad Robling, who was thrown off and suffered injuries to his hands, arms and face. Smith was taken to Wishard Hospital in Indianapolis by Air Evac helicopter, and later released.
Less than three weeks ago, a town marshal was killed in an ATV accident in Cayuga.
Louis Beam, 68, of Cayuga, died in the evening hours of May 14 in Indianapolis’ Methodist Hospital after being airlifted with injuries suffered in a May 12 ATV accident. Beam and his wife Janice had been riding their ATV in a charity event when they rear-ended another ATV on Vermillion County Road 150 in Clinton.
In Spencer County in southern Indiana, a 7-year-old boy died Sunday when the ATV he was riding flipped over on his father’s property.
Such accidents are on the rise as sales of ATVs increase, according to Conservation Officer Winchell.
“Emergency-room visits are going up,” he added. “There were more than 136,000 emergency-room visits [in 2005] in the U.S. because of ATV accidents. And there were 748 deaths,” Winchell said.
That number dwarfs figures reported 10 years earlier, Winchell said. He says the reason is that more and more people are becoming fans of the recreational vehicles.
Gary Delong, general operations manager for Thompson’s Motorsports in Terre Haute, agreed.
“Every year the popularity increases,” he said.
Delong, a retired ATV safety instructor, said a free safety training course is provided to every purchaser of an ATV through the All-Terrain Vehicle Safety Institute. ASI is a not-for-profit association founded by major U.S. distributors of ATVs, including American Honda Co. Inc; Yamaha Motor Corp.; American Suzuki Motor Corp.; and Kawasaki Motors Corp.
All-terrain vehicles, weighing anywhere from 300 to 700 pounds, according to Delong, often provide the rider with a false sense of security.
“They have four wheels, compared to an off-road motorcycle, but people tend not to realize [ATVs] have a real short wheel base,” he added.
In addition, the vehicles are “rider active,” Delong said, meaning “wherever your body is on that machine dictates how that machine is going to handle.”
The most important safety concerns for riding an ATV include wearing the right equipment (including a helmet with a mouth guard and goggles, and a chest protector); riding single; avoiding alcohol and prescription drugs while operating the vehicle; and knowing your limits, Delong said.
Winchell said the investigation of Cornwell’s accident at Mule Ridge showed that Cornwell probably tried to tackle a hill that was outside his range of experience.
“It was on steep terrain,” Winchell said. “This gentleman had been riding for two years, and there was a lot of hours he had racked up on that ATV, but still, according to statements of witnesses, it was over his experience level to be trying to climb that.”
While ATV parks such as Mule Ridge are designed to challenge riders with more difficult terrain, operator inexperience is a contributing factor to many accidents.
Safety courses, Delong said, “emphasize doing things gradually, building up your experience.”
Delong and Winchell both stressed the importance of riding on trails as opposed to county roads or private property.
“If you don’t have permission to operate an ATV on someone else’s property and you’re riding there, you’re breaking the law,” Winchell said.
Even though surrounding counties have adopted ordinances allowing ATVs to operate on some roadways, it is illegal in Vigo County. Beyond the legality, Delong says driving an ATV on asphalt can be dangerous.
“The tires are not designed for that,” he said. “They stick real good like Velcro – the grip is so good if you try to turn, it will pitch you off.”
In the counties where driving on a roadway is acceptable, Winchell said the operator must have a driver’s license, proof of insurance, and the vehicle must be registered through the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
The Mule Ridge ATV Park, which opened in April, provides a number of trails specially designed for the off-road vehicles. Winchell said he does not know if trails are marked for levels of difficulty. No one could be reached at Mule Ridge by press time. No one was there during a visit to the property Tuesday afternoon.
An ATV park in Greene County is the Redbird State Riding Area, managed by the Indiana DNR. More information is available at www.redbirdsra.com or (812) 847-9172.
Winchell says his biggest concern is when children operate ATVs.
“I just don’t understand why people let their children ride on them,” he said. “You wouldn’t give your kid the keys to the truck … If they’re under 14 years old, they have to be in constant supervision by an adult.
“I know that some of the safety groups advocate some of the smaller ATVs for kids. I don’t like to see kids on them at all, myself, but a smaller one is probably better than an adult-sized one, if you’re going to do it,” he said.
Winchell added that the most deadly ATV accidents – rollovers – are tough to escape when they happen.
“In that situation, you’ve got to get out of the way of that machine, but it happens so quickly … If you’re climbing a hill and you feel it start to roll, if you can’t control it, you’ve got to get out of the way of that thing so it doesn’t fall on top of you.”
Winchell, who said he had just come from the site in Spencer County where the 7-year-old boy was killed Sunday, admitted he usually sees the worst-case scenarios involving ATVs.
“They can be used, you know, you can have a lot of fun on them,” he said. “But they’re powerful machines. They can be very dangerous.”
Deb McKee can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.