By Shelley Grieshop
As the temperature outside rises, the roar of all-terrain vehicles can be heard from fields and ditches in many rural areas.
But the thought of ATVs roaring across the countryside makes law enforcement officers cringe because they know accidents are sure to follow. One local sheriff believes many crashes could be avoided if drivers were more aware of their surroundings.
"When four-wheeler drivers aren't familiar with the area they're riding in, people get hurt," Auglaize County Sheriff Al Solomon says.
Rugged fields and unexpected ditch culverts can quickly flip an ATV when the driver is traveling too fast or isn't anticipating a change in the landscape, he adds.
From 1982 through 2004, nearly 6,500 ATV-related deaths occurred across the United States, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Ohio accounted for 186 of those deaths. About a dozen off-the-road ATV accidents occur in Auglaize and Mercer counties each year, local officials say. In June 1998, 10-year-old Adam Kiracofe of Spencerville was killed when the three-wheeler he was driving with his mother and 23-month-old brother was struck head-on by a dirt bike on Shelley Road near Rockford.
All the occupants of the ATV and the dirt bike suffered injuries; none were wearing helmets at the time of the crash.
More recently, a 24-year-old Delphos man died Monday after the ATV he was riding with another man struck the rear of a car in the village of Delphos on Sunday.
ATV accidents lead to 40,000 emergency room visits each year; one-third of those involve children less than 16 years old. In Ohio, no one under 16 can legally operate an ATV on a public right-of-way without an operator's license unless accompanied by a licensed parent or guardian 18 years old or over.
Frequently used as a handy mode of transportation on area farms, ATVs cannot be legally driven on state or county roadways, although some communities -- such as St. Marys -- allow licensed drivers to operate them on city or village streets.
The CPSC began analyzing statistics about ATV-related deaths and injuries in the early 1980s, particularly accidents involving the more hazardous three-wheeled vehicles. In 1988, five leading ATV manufacturers agreed to, among other things, halt production of three-wheelers, offer safety training to new ATV owners and recommend adult-sized ATVs only for children 16 and older.
Although three-wheeled vehicles are now hard to find for sale across the United States, older models are still being used by consumers, the CPSC found in a recent study.
Solomon says many people consider ATVs to be "recreational" and perhaps hold a false sense of security, particularly when children take the wheel. Some ATVs can reach speeds of 60 mph.
"(ATV operators) should wear helmets and need to have the permission of landowners before riding across private property," Solomon says.
Since ATV operators are allowed to cross public highways, motorists also need to beware of their presence, he adds.
"Just like motorcycles, four-wheelers are not always that easy to see," Solomon explains. "ATVs are out there in the winter, too, but this is the time of year when motorists really have to be on the lookout."