Jessica Wheeler, whose 8-year-old daughter was injured while riding an all-terrain vehicle in Lincoln last week, said she and her daughter were at a friend’s home when a 12-year-old neighbor came by to visit on her family’s ATV.
Wheeler’s daughter rode the ATV first with an older cousin, then rode with the 12-year-old neighbor. The girls went off a trail and into some trees. The 8-year-old’s injury was a scraped neck from her helmet strap.
Wheeler was charged with failure to report the crash. Her friend, Jessica Tenney, was charged with allowing a minor to operate an ATV.
“It’s not like they were completely unsupervised,” Wheeler said. “I wasn’t aware of ATV laws at all. … Had I known the law, my daughter wouldn’t have been on it.”
That and other recent crashes involving ATVs, including an accident in East Machias on Saturday that killed a 4-year-old boy, raise questions about ATV safety for children and the liability of parents, at a time when the state is years behind on compiling ATV crash information.
The Maine Warden Service said it does not know how many ATV crashes the state had in 2011, 2012 or so far in 2013.
With about 62,000 ATVs registered in Maine and many more that don’t have to be registered because they are used only on private property, ATVs are common in most of the state.
Maine has 148 state-recognized ATV clubs, about 7,000 miles of ATV trails and about 2,800 landowners involved in the state’s trail system.
“It’s just a cultural thing, really,” said Cpl. John MacDonald of the Warden Service. “Many people involved with ATVs start their children very young.”
Henry Carey, president of the Penobscot Off-Road Riders ATV Club in Lincoln, said he has seen children riding all-terrain vehicles this year in ways “that I just shake my head (at),” riding adult-sized machines that are “way too big for them” or riding without adult supervision.
“We promote the safe riding of ATVs. The ultimate person responsible for a minor is the parent or guardian,” said Carey, whose club of about 175 members offers two ATV safety classes per year.
Under Maine law, it is illegal for anyone younger than 10 to operate an ATV off private property. Children ages 10 to 16 must attend, along with a parent or guardian, one of the many safety training programs run statewide by the warden service in conjunction with ATV clubs.
“Many times, parents are held accountable for crashes their underage children become involved in,” MacDonald said. “But I would say the majority of parents are cautious and monitor their kids when they are using ATVs.”
Wheeler said she doesn’t mind paying the fine, since she feels she has learned her lesson without major consequence.
“My daughter wasn’t seriously hurt, thank God,” Wheeler said. “I’m a very good mother who just made a bad call.”
The number of ATV crashes and injuries annually in Maine has declined in recent years, from a high of about 350 crashes in 2004 to a low of about 150 in 2008, MacDonald said.
The Warden Service reported 269 ATV crashes and four deaths in 2009. It reported 266 crashes and seven deaths in 2010, the most recent year for which it has data available.
The agency has no available data for the years after 2010, though MacDonald said the numbers have been steady.
The records do not break down crash data by the operators’ age.
Nationally, data about ATV-related deaths is still being collected for years as far back as 2007. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission released its annual report on ATV safety for 2011 in February of this year with a footnote that data collection for years after 2007 continues.
The 2011 national report lists 327 ATV-related deaths. In 2007, the number was 890. The report says those figures should not be used for year-over-year comparisons because the post-2007 numbers are expected to increase as death reports continue to be compiled.
MacDonald said game wardens decide on a case-by-case basis whether to charge parents with violations when children are involved in ATV accidents.
“You have to use your discretion. Ultimately, the parents are responsible for their kids’ actions, but if a kid goes outside their usual behavior you have to take that into account,” he said. “Sometimes you may just have to hold the kid accountable.”
On Saturday, a 4-year-old boy in East Machias was killed when a two-seat ATV rolled over on him.
The warden service said Roy Denison, 37, was riding a 2007 Yamaha Rhino 660 utility ATV with his son around his home and was joined by an 8-year-old nephew.
The nephew accidentally stepped on the accelerator and the ATV rolled over an embankment, then rolled over Wesley Keeton, 4, the 8-year-old’s brother. Wesley was pronounced dead at the scene.
The accident remains under investigation. As of Monday, no one had been charged.
East Machias, in Down East Maine, is about 25 miles from the Canadian border. Lincoln is 50 miles north of Bangor.
ATV safety is also a topic of concern in the southern part of the state.
Bob Worden, president of the Saco ATV’ers Club, said that in his 45 years of off-roading, starting with dirt bikes, he has seen more young, inexperienced riders get overconfident in recent years.
“I’m totally for kids learning to ride at a young age. It’s a good, healthy sport,” Worden said. “But it’s got to be done safely.”
Worden said no one should ride without a helmet and no one younger than 16 should ride alone.
“The biggest problem these days is that the kids don’t respect the trails the way we did. The trails can hurt you,” Worden said. “They don’t have the experience to brake when you need to and to throttle up when you have to.”
At least one ATV dealer, Tidd’s Sports Shop in the Aroostook County town of Hodgdon, has seen a sharp decline in traditional ATVs in recent years.
Rick Tidd said the shop sold fewer than 30 ATVs this year, compared with more than 100 larger utility ATVs, often called UTVs, with two or more seats side by side.
“Four-wheelers have really slowed down a bunch in the past couple years,” Tidd said, referring to single-seat ATVs.
Tidd said he has seen an even sharper decline in sales of small-engine ATVs, traditionally targeting children.
Just as ATV sales once eclipsed sales of dirt bikes and snowmobiles, UTVs sales are now outpacing all the rest.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at [email protected]