LAURINBURG — The all-terrain vehicle accident that seriously injured Scotland High School football star Jaylend Ratliffe happened during the most hazardous month for ATV riders, national safety statistics indicate.
“The summer is a notoriously dangerous time for ATV riders and statistics show death and injury rates skyrocket as temperatures rise,’’ said Matthew Arnold, an attorney who writes for the Charlotte Injury Lawyers’ Blog. “The peak of ATV-related injuries occurs in July.’’
North Carolina ranks ninth nationwide for the number of ATV-related fatalities that occurred between Jan. 1, 1982, when ATV data collection began, and Dec. 31, 2012, according to the most recent report compiled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
And many, if not most, ATV accidents go unreported, said Trooper C.L. Pridgen, stationed in Scotland County with the North Carolina Highway Patrol.
“There are not a lot of ATV accidents here compared to Robeson County,’’ he said, adding that because ATVs are not regulated by the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, actual numbers are difficult to obtain. “… They are often unreported. Many happen on private property.’’
Indeed, statistics indicate that most ATV accidents happen in rural areas on private property, and 80 percent of injuries happen to a driver, not a passenger; most of them head and neck injuries.
While the number of serious ATV-related accidents and deaths has trended upward with the exponential growth of off-road motor sports, and the use of ATVs remains inherently risky, the commission’s report indicates the vast majority of accidents do not require hospitalization.
Of the 107,900 emergency room visits for ATV-related accidents compiled for 2012, 85 percent of the victims were treated and released.
“Getting trained in proper driving techniques is the key to avoiding accidents and getting hurt,’’ said Staff Sgt. Chris Davis, 29, an active-duty soldier at Fort Bragg who has raced dirt bikes professionally since 1997. A licensed member of the American Motorcycle Association, Davis spends most of his weekends teaching driving techniques to young ATV and dirt bike riders at Outback Motor Sports Complex, located about 5 miles north of Laurinburg.
“My goal is to fuel the sport,’’ he told the Laurinburg Exchange in a telephone interview. “But you can hardly enjoy it if you end up in a wheelchair, or worse. Most of what I know about driving, I learned the hard way, but I have been very fortunate and I want to share what I know so others can benefit.”
Davis has proved his skills on dirt bikes many times, having been ranked a top competitor in the association’s Eastern Racing Series. But whether one is a pro or a casual weekend rider, proper riding equipment is a must, not matter the driver’s skill level, he said.
“Quite a few people who just ride for pleasure on private property do not wear a helmet or riding boots,’’ said Davis. “And a lot of other people think all you need is a helmet. Protective boots and eye protection are also essential.’’
North Carolina State law requires ATV riders to wear a helmet and eye protection, among other restrictions. But no state agency in North Carolina regulates ATV use or compiles related data. All 50 states have passed laws pertaining to ATV use, 45 of them prior to North Carolina. Of the 50 states, 31 require helmet use and 28 have a minimum operator age. North Carolina is among those in both categories.
Davis said he uses the sprawling 80-acre Outback Motor Sports facility because safety rules are strictly enforced. Large signs warning customers that “No Helmet = No Ride’’ are posted at numerous points leading up the park’s long wooded driveway.
“They don’t just put signs up,’’ he added. “They enforce it. I’ve stopped people out here almost every weekend and given them constructive criticism. It’s no fun if you get hurt and have to stop.’’
The biggest problem for Scotland County law enforcement is the use of ATVs on public roads and streets, forbidden by state law. ATVs are allowed by law to cross directly across public roads and streets.
“I think the majority of folks who ride those things … know the rules, but they are willfully breaking the law by riding on the road,’’ Trooper Pridgen said. “I have ATVs myself, for my children, and I load them up and take them to the ATV park or to property where we have permission to ride.
“Any time you ride on a highway or street, it presents a significant danger, with or without a helmet,’’ he said. “But that’s our biggest problem with ATVs in the county.
It increases call volume, according to Pridgen, and takes away time and such resources as gasoline that could be devoted to monitoring regular traffic problems.
When first introduced in the United States in the 1970s, the earliest ATVs were three-wheeled, not the four-wheeled models that predominate now. The original target market was for farm use.
When the general public began buying three-wheeled ATVs, a “dramatic injury rate’’ resulted, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
So much so that in 1988, the CPSC imposed a 10-year moratorium on the sale of three-wheelers, which are much less stable than four-wheelers. Sales of four-wheeled ATVs soared.
The typical ATV now is four-wheeled and weighs up to 400 or more pounds, has an engine size of 400-600 cc that generates 50 horsepower and is capable of speeds up to 100mph. But with low-pressure tires and a relatively narrow and short wheel-base that makes them easy to flip, they are not really designed for use on hard-surface roads.
Despite North Carolina’s ATV law, the N.C. Medical Journal, after assessing the law’s effectiveness, reported that it does not further impact overall ATV riding behavior.
Cited among the reasons it says hamper the law’s usefulness in preventing injuries and deaths, the Journal noted that “the present penalties may not be stringent enough to encourage … changes in all users.’’
J.L. Pate can be reached at 910-506-3171.