Death on 4 wheels
Many of the stories begin the same way:
"A 6-year-old girl was killed in an accident while she was riding on an all-terrain vehicle," reads one 1997 account.
"A 15-year-old from Mingo County has died from head injuries suffered in a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle accident," from a 1996 crash.
"A 16-year-old Doddridge County boy has died, the victim of an all-terrain vehicle accident near Wilbur," a 1999 report reads.
Three ATVs, three children, three deaths.
And there are dozens of stories like those.
A now six-year crusade to make ATVs safer will be reborn this year when state lawmakers return to Charleston this week.
Since 1982, 218 West Virginians have died on all-terrain vehicles, according to state and federal statistics.
And in the past three years, an average of 21 state residents a year have died on ATVs, according to the West Virginia University Center for Rural Emergency Medicine. One in every four West Virginians killed on ATVs during that time was a child less than 16 years old.
This year's version of the ATV safety bill will start with four main points, bill sponsors say:
For supporters such as the bill's past and current sponsor, Sen. Mike Oliverio, D-Monongalia, it's time to tighten safety restrictions.
In a half-dozen previous tries, ATV safety legislation has buckled under the weight of confusing amendments or it simply has stalled before receiving a single vote.
From 1985 to 2001, children under the age of 16 made up 37 percent of ATV deaths, according to a national study by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Per capita, West Virginia leads the nation in ATV deaths. Yet West Virginia is one of seven states without ATV safety legislation.
"I think the public sentiment toward this issue has changed dramatically in six years," Oliverio said.
Sen. Mike Ross, D-Randolph, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, has opposed past forms of ATV legislation.
Ross uses ATVs for his oil and gas properties and advocates them as a tool, but also sees a need for safety.
"Not everybody is an outlaw rider or a renegade," Ross said.
Like Oliverio and the ATV industry, Ross said he supports safety regulations.
A sticking point in past years, and one that could arise during this year's session, is the helmet regulation.
In dealerships and on advertisements, riders wear helmets in sales photos.
Countless warnings are permanently installed on the body of ATVs.
A debate surely will arise over whether helmets should be required on private property, the age limit for helmet laws and who will enforce such a rule, Ross said.
As in the past, Leff Moore, a lobbyist who represents ATV dealers, wholesalers and manufacturers, is vocal about this year's legislative proposal.
"I think the industry's position is pretty clear," Moore said. "There's a warning notice in front of you every time you swing your leg over that machine. It's absolutely clear."
It becomes a culture
When legislators proposed and passed legislation in 1997 requiring young bicycle riders to wear helmets, it began what Oliverio refers to as a safe culture.
"In 1996, I dare to say that if you drove around West Virginia you would have been hard pressed to find a child riding a bike with a helmet," he said. "We set a bright-line standard for parents and then children to follow. The standard was for children to wear bike helmets. Parents began buying them, hospitals and insurance companies began offering free helmets."
By passing a law requiring ATV riders to strap on a helmet, Oliverio said, safety-legislation supporters want to invent another culture.
If it worked for bicycles, it could work for ATVs, Oliverio says.
"It begins to create a culture of safety in the mind of that child," he said.
In West Virginia each year, thousands of ATVs are sold and hundreds more are resold, dealers say.
Not a single helmet is required to be sold along with them.
There's no registration or licensing for West Virginia ATV riders, so tracking the machines is nearly impossible, Moore said.
Industry representatives have estimated there are 140,000 ATVs in the state.
In 2002, 17 of the 24 deaths on ATVs in West Virginia involved teens who had not yet seen their 16th birthday or taken their driver's test, according to WVU's Center for Rural Emergency Medicine. Compared to the number of children killed in three of the previous four years, 17 teen-agers killed on ATVs is an improvement.
"The industry has said it will advocate and support state laws," Moore said.
According to CREM, 95 percent of accident victims don't wear a helmet.
Even those who advocate some level of safety legislation admit they sometimes don't wear helmets.
Ross said he cautions his employees on ATVs, but he doesn't always wear a helmet.
"No, I don't wear a helmet, but I don't speed either," Ross said.
Eight out of every 10 children injured or killed on an ATV were not wearing a helmet when they crashed in the past two years, according to CREM.
"I think that the youngsters should have helmets on. Now, when you get up to a farmer riding around the hayfield, I don't think you should have to wear a helmet," Ross said. "If you start a kid off with a helmet, it's like a seat belt — it's an educational process."
In tiny Mason, in Mason County, Mayor Raymond Cundiff uses good weather as an excuse to break out his ATV and ride around town.
"I ride around just to check on people," Cundiff said. "If someone has a complaint, instead of getting in my car, I jump on my four-wheeler."
Paved roads are no exception for Cundiff, though he said most riders stay clear of main roads.
Who is to blame?
A 1991 attorney general's informal opinion said ATVs are legal on roads because there is no law saying ATVs can't be used on public roads.
Except for a few select state communities, law enforcement officers don't have laws to warrant pulling over a four-wheeler being driven on public roads.
"Every law enforcement officer in the state has taken that opinion as saying that they have no power to stop them," Moore said. "It took everybody off the enforcement hook."
Supporters of ATV safety regulation say it's the parents' responsibility to protect young kids from the adult ATVs.
"We recognize that adults are the responsible and accountable parties," Moore says. "Without the benefit of mature training with that device, they [children] are liable to get hurt on it."
In some cases, children ride along with their parents, even though there's not a machine sold that's made for more than one person.
In a Honda safety video, the company stresses keeping one person on one ATV.
Some riders, however, might disagree with that advice.
Cundiff and his wife often double on their ATV.
"If we couldn't ride double, I would sell my ATV," he said.
'It's like riding on four balloons'
The four-wheeled machines most West Virginians buy weigh several hundred pounds.
Moore likened riding an ATV to riding on four balloons.
Paved-road riding is nearly impossible to pull off safely because of the axle and tread on ATVs, which are designed solely for off-road use, safety advocates say.
By shifting weight and balancing, riders are able to gain control of the machine, making steering and recreational riding safe, Moore said.
But young children, who often weigh a fraction of the weight of the adult machines, can't manage the bigger machines, safety advocates say.
"Too many adults view their ATV as a child's toy," Moore said. "The size of the rider is critical to ATVs' operation."
Honda and other ATV manufacturers recommend 16-year-olds and younger children stay off ATVs with engines larger than 90 cc. ATVs with smaller engines are sold to kids to help fit their body size, according to ATV safety literature.
A similar proposal to limit the engine size for young ATV riders was discussed by legislators in 1998, but it failed with the overall bill.
"Children need to be observed carefully, because not all children have the strength, size, skills or judgment needed to operate an ATV safely," according to the ATV Safety Institute.
When riders climb hills or mounds, Moore said, body weight should be shifted forward to balance the weight on the machine. Some accidents, however, occur when the rider or riders shift toward the back of the machine, tumbling it on top of them, Moore said.
"Riding on an ATV is an athletic event," Moore added. "Training causes you to learn to manage terrain, speed and weight shifting. A kid just doesn't get that."
'It may not be popular'
For four consecutive years, ATV legislation has died in the state Senate.
Members of the Senate Transportation Committee have failed to approve any significant version of the bill, state legislative records show.
In October, Gov. Bob Wise stood up for ATV regulations and said he will propose such a bill this year.
Helmet requirements are among his choices for a new law. But he avoided saying ATVs could be banned from all public roads.
"I think, clearly, people are ready and beginning to think hard about a need for some common-sense ATV legislation," he said at the time. "We've just lost too many young people. We lost three in one week alone. So it's time to do this."
Ross said he expects a successful bill during this year's session, which begins Wednesday.
"I think we'll definitely come up with something," he said. "I think something has to be done. It may not be popular for everyone, but we don't deal with everyone — we deal with the majority."
To contact staff writer Charles Shumaker, use e-mail or call 348-1240.