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Recent deaths raise questions about lack of ATV safety laws
Roadside memorials mark the spot where Tracy Deal, Jr., 13, and Devin Miller, 15, were killed while riding an All-Terrain Vehicle on Williams Road near Hopulikit last Wednesday. Neither teen was wearing a helmet.
    The tragic deaths of two Bulloch County teenagers two weeks ago brought to light what some believe is an oversight that needs to be fixed: the lack of safety laws regarding four-wheelers.
    There is no legal age law for drivers of an all-terrain vehicle in Georgia. While a rider must be licensed, have a horn, brake lights, tail lights, head lights, brakes and proper tires when riding on a highway, these requirements do not apply for riding on dirt roads or private property, according to the Georgia Department of Safety.
    And even when riding on highways, fully licensed with an ATV in full compliance with existing laws, a rider or driver is not required by law to wear a helmet. At the same time, the law does require motorcycle riders to wear helmets.
    Local governments can impose ordinances further governing ATV riders, but Bulloch County has none, said Bulloch County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Gene McDaniel.
    Deputies can issue tickets for driving under the influence, reckless driving, no proof of insurance and defective equipment, but if they see a 10-year-old riding a four-wheeler on a dirt road near his home, with no helmet, even with no brake, tail or headlights, there is nothing they can do except offer a warning, he said.
    "We do what we can," he said.
    In a rural area where four-wheelers are standard modes of short-distance travel and major sources of entertainment, enforcing laws would be difficult, and citizens have expressed to legislators that they don't want laws, he said.
    "We live in a rural area, and a lot of the folks who make the laws live in rural areas," he said. "Regulating any kind of behavior people find to be popular is met with resistance."
    While State Sen. Jack Hill (R-District 4) said he is in favor of "changing and strengthening" ATV laws, there are issues with laws already on the books.
    "We hear a lot of complaints from law enforcement that they can't enforce" the few existing laws, he said.
    "It still boils down to parents and law enforcement, and it's hard for law enforcement to enforce anything if parents don't enforce it as well," Hill said.
    Hill said he has seen ATV riders speeding, no helmet, riding on rough terrain with the danger of being thrown from the four-wheelers.
    "I am open to supporting changing and strengthening the laws," he said. "It is a wide-reaching problem deeper than any state laws can fix."
    Hill said he would seek input from law enforcement regarding any future legislation governing ATVs.
ATV accidents
    Dr. Alan Scott, emergency room physician with East Georgia Regional Medical Center in Statesboro, said he sees "at least 10 injuries a week" attributed to ATV accidents.
    "The majority are under 16," he said. "That's a real high risk age. Kids are not used to riding them, and they should be required to have a driver's license."
    The injuries are rarely just scrapes and bruises. Combine high speeds, no helmets, and heavy equipment, and you have a recipe for disaster, he said.
    "Unfortunately, they are almost always fairly substantial injuries," he said. "Unlike motorcycles (which are usually lighter than four-wheelers) riders are not thrown free. The four-wheeler topples on top of them, and it is usually a crushing type injury."
    But he sees all kinds of ATV-related injuries – head injuries, broken limbs, and other injuries, Scott said.
    "Most people don't wear the protective gear they should," he said. "Passengers, too."
    Younger drivers and riders are more susceptible to injury than older, more experienced drivers because "they tend to go faster and are more risky," he said.
    Chief McDaniel said deputies have received 71 calls so far in 2008 that were specifically classified as four wheeler complaints, but added that many other calls – about twice as many – may be listed as something else, though they are related to ATVs.
    Calls listed as criminal trespass, unruly juvenile, traffic stops and others often involve four-wheelers, he said.
    The calls "are pretty frequent, especially on weekends and holidays, when school is out, during the summer," he said.
ATV safety warnings
    Not two weeks ago, Devin Miller, 15, and Tracy Deal Jr., 13, were killed when they ran a stop sign at the intersection of Colfax Road West and Williams Road.
    According to reports, Deal was taking Miller home when he failed to stop, pulling into the path of a truck. Both boys were killed in the crash. Neither wore helmets, according to Georgia State Patrol reports.
    McDaniel recalled an ATV-related death in the Clito area early this year on Kyle Sorrell Road, when a young man lost control of his four-wheeler and struck a truck parked in a yard.
    A few years earlier, a teenage girl riding at night on a four-wheeler with her uncle was killed when struck by a truck.
    About two years ago a rider was on a stolen four-wheeler, in the woods near Burkhalter Road "on the north side of U.S. 80 East," and lost control and was killed, he said.
    Just over a month ago, Christopher O'Toole, an 18-year-old Portal resident, was involved in an ATV accident in Metter. He was a passenger on a four-wheeler operated by a man charged with DUI, who escaped serious injury.
     O'Toole was struck by a car when the driver crossed a highway, pulling into the vehicle's path. O'Toole lost half his leg and has undergone several surgeries to repair his hip.
    "There are so many four-wheelers, and they come in all sizes," McDaniel said. "Now you've got the racing four wheelers, and there's only one thing you can do with  them."
    Although there are few laws and the safety measures are ultimately up to the buyer/riders, most dealerships offer safety tips, warnings and even media to buyers upon purchase of an ATV, said Hank Dutton, owner of Haulin' Tail Motor Sports.
    Most manufacturers require dealerships to make sure  the safety information is supplied to buyers, including DVDs and CDs about ATV safety.
    "You can teach people ... but if they don't use it, it's like you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink," he said. "You can tell them all the safety you want to, but it doesn't make them use it."
    Riders who don't exercise good judgment can hurt themselves, he said.
    While most manufacturers do require including safety information with purchase of  their products, "Me, personally, I'm going to do it anyway" regardless whether it is required, Dutton said.
    Sales representatives also try to match riders with the appropriate ATVs, said Sylvia Dutton, also an owner of Haulin' Tail Motor Sports. "You don't want to sell too powerful a four-wheeler for a kid."
    Statesboro resident Carl Brister said his family enjoys four-wheeling as a sport they can do together, and they own several ATVs.
    However, he insists upon safety measures and does not allow his children, ages 13 and 17, to ride unsupervised or on roadways.
    "One of  my main things is I don't allow my kids to go on the road," he said. "Kids don't pay attention and a vehicle can't see them."
    Brister has a track around the house, much like others in other neighborhoods, specifically made for ATV riding.
    But his children – and himself as well – always wear helmets, and "never at full speed," he said.
    Four-wheelers are heavy, and his doctor told him once he would rather see Brister on a motorcycle because "you can lay one down," where it's impossible to do so with an ATV if a dangerous situation arises.
    "It's a big heavy machine, and it's not like you can roll off the side of it."
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