Originally created 01/13/04

ATVs' deadly toll



Sue Townsend, Aiken County coroner, is used to dealing with death. It's her job. She traffics in it day in and day out. Death is the coin of her realm.

Fatality scenes, accidental or suspicious, that would sicken or horrify most of us are routine to her. Her task is to determine the cause of deaths that cannot be explained by natural causes.

But Townsend recently called a news conference to discuss a cause of death that even sickened her to the core - and for a very good reason. The tragic New Year's Day death of a 16-year-old driving an all-terrain vehicle would not have happened if the girl had simply obeyed the law: ATVs are not ever to be driven on publicly maintained roads, not even dirt roads.

ATVs are strictly off-road vehicles. "The place for them," said Townsend, "is in an open field or in the woods." Townsend knows whereof she speaks. She uses an ATV herself on her 138-acre farm.

She also knows the pain of losing a child in an auto accident - a misery that was visited on her two years ago. She wants to spare others the experience of that pain. This is why she called the news conference to remind parents and their kids how important it is to keep ATVs off public roadways.

The New Year's Day fatality took place on an Aiken County dirt road. It was the third ATV tragedy Townsend had to deal with in the last 18 months. Obviously, the message hadn't been getting through. Let's hope it is now.

It is not only the victims and their families who suffer - it is also the drivers who hit them. Even if not their fault, they must live with the awful knowledge they killed someone.

Of course, South Carolina is not alone with its ATV problem. Last September, Ambrose, Ga., was the site of one of the worst ATV tragedies ever. A 29-year-old woman drove her car across the center line, crashing into an ATV, killing five children.

No matter what caused the woman to cross the center line, the ATV had no business on the public road - and if it had not been there, those kids would still be alive today.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has reported that 35 percent of ATV-related fatalities were caused by children under 16 and 15 percent by kids under 12. That's amazing, given that the four-wheeler is not a toy.

Laws concerning ATVs in both South Carolina and Georgia are lax. Neither state has an age limit. Although Georgia requires a helmet and eye protections, South Carolina does not. Sellers of the vehicles will provide safety courses, but they are an option, not a requirement.

We are not sure that tougher ATV laws would change anything. There's basically only one law now - stay off public roadways - and it's widely ignored, often with deadly consequences.

What's needed, as Townsend reminds us, is the general recognition that ATVs are not toys and that caring parents will not allow their children to drive them without adult supervision - and never on public roadways.