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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Debate Over ATV Safety In West Virginia

Mark Whitt leads an ATV safety lesson for a fifth grade class in Lenore, West Virginia. (Leah Binkovitz/NPR)

Mark Whitt leads an ATV safety lesson for a fifth grade class in Lenore, West Virginia. (Leah Binkovitz/NPR)

There’s a debate underway in West Virginia over the all-terrain vehicle. ATVs are a way of life in the state — a local passion and an increasingly important source of revenue. With summer — and riding season — on the way, businesses are looking forward to another flood of ATV tourism dollars. And safety advocates are working to make sure all that fun doesn’t also come at a cost. NPR’s Leah Binkovitz reports:

Tanya Jackson, like many West Virginians, grew up riding ATVs. She remembers following along behind her brother, Rick.

“My brother was always riding — dirt bikes, ATVs, anything he could get his hands on,” she says.

But in 2006, Rick had a terrible accident.

“My dad had called me and he told me that they were trying to get a hold of my mom, that he was at Ruby Memorial and family was needed to go over there to identify his body.”

Tanya Jackson’s brother was doing two common but very dangerous things when he wrecked. First, he wasn’t wearing a helmet. And second, he was riding his ATV on pavement. When his family got to the hospital, Rick had trauma so severe he was later declared brain-dead.

Tanya Jackson's Mrs. Moutaineer sash includes an ATV Safety Institute pin. (Leah Binkovitz/NPR)

Tanya Jackson’s Mrs. Moutaineer sash includes an ATV Safety Institute pin. (Leah Binkovitz/NPR)

He was an organ donor. So, for two days, the family kept him on life support while the hospital arranged the surgeries.

“It was probably the most, sorry, emotional, tiring thing I’ve been through but I’m glad because it gave us more time,” Tanya Jackson says.

It took her years to get back on an ATV. Now she’s one of the state’s most visible riders and outspoken safety advocates. The beauty queen even partnered with the Governor’s Highway Safety Program for a series of PSAs.

For the past decade, West Virginia has averaged roughly 30 deaths per year due to ATV-related accidents, peaking at 54 the year Rick was killed. In 2013, that number dropped to just 19.

One reason why: education.

“We’re seeing less and less deaths on ATVs with kids under the age of 16 and we really feel that our education curriculum is helping,” says Mark Whitt, who’s leading a training session down in the southern part of the state in Mingo County’s Lenore K-8 school.

Today’s lesson is all about what to wear while riding. The fifth graders model helmets, goggles, boots and other protective gear for each other.

As part of West Virginia University’s Extension program, Whitt travels to schools across the state with curriculum from the ATV Safety Institute.

When NPR's Leah Binkovitz asked a class the fifth graders whether they ride ATVs, nearly everyone raised a hand. (Leah Binkovitz/NPR)

When NPR’s Leah Binkovitz asked a class the fifth graders whether they ride ATVs, nearly everyone raised a hand. (Leah Binkovitz/NPR)

Statewide, only kids under 18 are required to wear helmets. They are also the only ones required to get some basic form of safety instruction. And that only came about after organized action.

“We took about 500 kids, over 200 and some from Mingo County, and we marched on the capital in 2004 and we met with every delegate and every senator and we got our first ATV bill passed,” Whitt says.

ATV manufacturers insist their machines are safe. The problem, they say, isn’t the ATVs, it’s where and how they’re used. This gets to the heart of the problem in West Virginia.

To start, there’s a general wariness toward regulation. And as the coal industry has declined, ATV tourism has become more important. People come from all over the U.S. to ride through West Virginia’s gorgeous back country. Locals fear legislating safety could risk those tourism dollars.

One good example, the expanding Hatfield-McCoy Trail system. It brings in $1 million annually in permits alone. I wanted to see it for myself and took my first ATV ride with help from Mark Whitt.

First, I put on a helmet, boots, gloves and goggles.

“You’re gonna take your right hand and you’re gonna turn the ignition switch on,” Whitt tells me. “Very good. Then you’re gonna touch your start button and that thing is gonna start up. Are you ready to start?”

Memories are suddenly coming into focus of the last time I was on a motorbike. I quickly crashed it into my neighbor’s parked car.

I practice in a field a bit before we end up on one of the system’s “green circle” trails — the easiest there is. Still, I struggle. Twice the forest green ATV I’m riding pulls me toward the edge of the trail. But when we reach the top, the view is dramatic.

Whitt starts telling me about the wildlife: turkey, deer, bobcats and even bears. The wilderness is a big reason people do this — even Whitt. He just wants them to be safer doing it.

He comes to this trail five or six times each month. Parked up above, we look down at the highway. Just the week before, he says, a friend died riding on the road without a helmet.

Reporter

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

To West Virginia, now, where there's a debate underway over the all-terrain vehicle. ATVs are a way of life in many states. In West Virginia, they are a passion and an important source of revenue. With summer and riding season on the way, businesses are looking forward to the annual boon of ATV tourists. But safety advocates are working to keep the sport safe. NPR's Leah Binkovitz takes a look at the new proposed regulations and some of the dangers.

Tanya Jackson, like many West Virginians, grew up riding ATVs. She remembers following along behind her brother, Rick.

TANYA JACKSON: And my brother always, he was always riding: dirt bikes, ATVs, anything he could get his hands on.

LEAH BINKOVITZ, BYLINE: But in 2006, Rick had a terrible accident.

JACKSON: My dad had called me, and he told me that they were trying to get a hold of my mom, that he was at Ruby Memorial, and we needed to - family was needed to go over there to identify his body.

BINKOVITZ: Tanya Jackson's brother was doing two common but very dangerous things when he wrecked. First, he wasn't wearing a helmet. And second, he was riding his ATV on pavement. When his family got to the hospital, Rick had trauma so severe he was later declared brain-dead. He was an organ donor. So for two days, the family kept him on life support while the hospital arranged the surgeries.

JACKSON: It was probably the most, sorry, emotional, tiring thing I've been through, but I'm glad because it gave us more time.

BINKOVITZ: It took Jackson years to get back on an ATV. Now she's one of the state's most visible riders and outspoken safety advocates. The beauty queen even partnered with the Governor's Highway Safety Program for a series of PSAs.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT)

JACKSON: Hi, I'm Mrs. Mountaineer, Tanya Jackson. On August 19, 2006, my brother...

BINKOVITZ: For the past decade, West Virginia has averaged roughly 30 deaths per year due to ATV-related accidents, peaking at 54 the year Rick was killed. In 2013, that number dropped to just 19. One reason why: education.

MARK WHITT: And what's the most important thing?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Helmet.

WHITT: And what's that helmet going to do for us?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Protect you from head trauma.

WHITT: Yes, yes sir.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: If you (unintelligible) if you don't got a helmet on, you could hit a rock, and it could cause you to die.

BINKOVITZ: Mark Whitt is leading a training session down in the southern part of the state in Mingo County's Lenore K-through-eight school. Today's lesson is all about what to wear while riding. The fifth graders model helmets, goggles, boots and other protective gear for each other.

As part of West Virginia University's Extension program, Whitt travels to schools across the state with curriculum from the ATV Safety Institute. Statewide, only kids under 18 are required to wear helmets. They are also the only ones required to get some basic form of safety instruction. And that only came about after organized action.

WHITT: We took about 500 kids, over 200 and some from Mingo County, and we marched on the Capitol in 2004, and we met with every delegate and every senator and we got our first ATV bill passed.

BINKOVITZ: ATV manufacturers insist their machines are safe. The problem, they say, isn't the ATVs, it's where and how they're used. This gets to the heart of the problem in West Virginia. To start, there's a general wariness toward regulation. And as the coal industry has declined, ATV tourism has become more important. People come from all over the U.S. to ride through West Virginia's gorgeous back country. Locals fear legislating safety could risk those tourism dollars.

One good example, the expanding Hatfield-McCoy Trail system. It brings in $1 million annually in permits alone. I wanted to see it for myself and took my first ATV ride with help from Mark Whitt. First, I put on a helmet, boots, gloves and goggles.

WHITT: You're going to take your right hand and you're going to turn the ignition switch on. Very good. Then you're going touch your start button, and that thing is going to start up. Are you ready to start?

BINKOVITZ: Memories are suddenly coming into focus of the last time I was on a motorbike. I quickly crashed it into my neighbor's parked car. All right, here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE SPUTTERING)

BINKOVITZ: No, not enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE CATCHING)

WHITT: Good job.

BINKOVITZ: That did it. I practice in a field a bit before we end up on one of the system's green circle trails, the easiest there is. Still, I struggle. Twice the forest green ATV I'm riding pulls me toward the edge of the trail. But when we reach the top, the view is dramatic.

WHITT: We're on the West Virginia-Kentucky border, beautiful terrain, lots of trees.

BINKOVITZ: Whitt starts telling me about the wildlife, first turkey, deer, then bobcats bears. Stop talking.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITT: It's not bad, but it is - the wilderness is nice up here.

BINKOVITZ: The wilderness, that's a big reason people do this, even Whitt. He just wants them to be safer doing it. He comes to this trail five or six times each month. Parked up above, we look down at the highway. Just the week before, he says, a friend died riding on the road without a helmet. Leah Binkovitz, NPR News.

YOUNG: And we are following some other stories for you. Russia reacted angrily to the EU- and U.S.-imposed sanctions meant to stop Russia from interfering in Ukraine. Russia's deputy foreign minister vowed to deliver a painful response. Starting this year, laws in Vermont and San Francisco allow workers to request flexible or predictable hours, Although companies don't have to grant them, many advocates say the laws aim to change the stigma of the mommy track. More on these and other stories later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

Oh, and Robin? One more thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Monty? Monty...

HOBSON: You're listening here to a song from the Broadway show "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder." It was the big winner today when the nominations for the Tony Awards were announced. "A Gentleman's Guide" leads the pack with 10 nods, including Best Musical. "Hedwig and the Angry Itch" got eight nominations, and there were seven apiece for "After Midnight," "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," "The Glass Menagerie and "Twelfth Night." The Tonys will be held on June 8 in, where else, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) (Singing) I don't know what I'd do without you. I have never met another man who's half as dear as you. You're so clever too, and you make me laugh more than anybody.

HOBSON: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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