SIKESTON -- As summer officially kicks into gear, unfortunately so do the number of accidents involving all-terrain vehicles.
Troop E of the Missouri State Highway Patrol has already seen at least three or four fatalities this year and numerous accidents related to ATVs.
"Most accidents occur because the ATVs are not being driven as they're intended. Usually drivers are going too fast for the conditions," noted Sgt. Larry Plunkett Jr., public information officer for Troop E. "ATVs are fairly easy to operate and drivers often become overly confident about their driving skills."
And the impact of rural accidents is felt as far away as St. Louis. Dr. Doug Schuerer, trauma surgeon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, said he has noticed an increase in the number of ATV-related injuries over the past two summers. Many of the ATV cases seen at Barnes-Jewish Hospital are transferred from rural areas as far as 180 miles away.
"There's no doubt trauma is up -- I'm not sure if it's because we're getting more of the patients from the rural areas or there are more accidents," Schuerer noted.
In the time it takes to transfer the patient, precious minutes are lost, Schuerer said. Hospitals across the country are closing their trauma centers due to funding challenges and malpractice issues, leaving fewer trauma centers to bear a larger burden for the region's injured, he added.
"People who ride ATVs tend to think they're invincible. They can go up to 75 miles per hour and people tend to not wear helmets, they ride them through areas where they don't know the trails and unfortunately they're often riding at night and inebriated," Schuerer said.
The most common cause of accidents is inadequate training and drinking while driving, Schuerer noted. And often those two go together, he added.
Unfortunately, many of Troop E's ATV accidents this year have occurred off the main roadways and have involved children.
"One thing we encourage parents to do is remember you're not putting your child on a skateboard that goes 10 miles an hour -- you're putting them on a 30 to 60-plus miles per hour vehicle and there's a lot of speed there," Plunkett said. Children don't understand they're very light and can't control ATVs as well as adults, Schuerer said.
"Anyone under 18 should be supervised by an adult, which means somebody needs to be out watching and making sure they're wearing the proper safety equipment."
Protective gear that should be worn includes a helmet, eye protection, gloves, boots, shirts and pants, the University of Missouri Extension reports.
"Obviously we're not going to stop people from riding ATVs," Schuerer said. "All children should have protective gear and have an education class before they ride them. And it wouldn't hurt for adults to do the same."
In 1983, four major U.S. ATV distributors (Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha) established the Speciality Vehicle Institute of America (SVIA) to promote the safe and responsible use of ATVs. In 1988, the SVIA formed a new division, the ATV Safety Institute, to expand the availability of their ATV RiderCourse.
Numerous people take the courses each year, said Hegema Salgado, a customer service representative for the ATV Safety Institute, which is headquartered in Irvine, Calif. Generally, ATV dealerships inform their customers about the training opportunity at the time of purchase and send contact information to the ATV Safety Institute. Representatives from the institute then contact the customers.
Those who sign up for the training have a choice of taking the four-hour course on either a Saturday or Sunday. The training includes pre-ride inspections, starting and stopping, turning, operation on hills, emergency stopping and riding over obstacles. Approximately eight students are enrolled in each class, but the number could be less, depending on the age of the participants.
While local courses have been offered in Poplar Bluff and Jonesboro, Ill., Salgado said the course locations and time depend on the instructor.
And cost of the course varies, Salgado said. If a brand new ATV is purchased, the course is free for the person who fits in age requirement, she said. If the purchase is for a youth or the ATV is not new, the fee depends on how old the driver is. If the person is between the ages of 6 and 15, cost for the training course is $75; and for drivers 16 and older, the fee is $125.
Plunkett agreed training is a good idea.
"We're not anti-ATV," Plunkett assured. "They are fun vehicles and we want the public to enjoy them. We just want you to use good judgment and make sure to supervise the young children."
To find the nearest ATV RiderCourse or for more information about the training, call 1-800-887-2887.