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ATV crashes show need for helmets

On the morning of July 7, 9-year-old Katelyn Langner took her family's 500cc Polaris Sportsman all-terrain-vehicle out of the shed.

She and her two young cousins planned to ride on their grandparents' property near Garfield.

While driving across a gravel road from one part of the farm to the other, Katelyn lost control of the four-wheeler, sending the 700-pound machine careening down a ditch before crashing into a telephone pole.

She suffered serious head injuries and was airlifted to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, where she would spend her next 17 days hospitalized before returning home last Thursday.

None of the children were wearing helmets.

One week after the Garfield accident, two teenage girls were involved in an ATV crash along County Road 80 near Eagle Valley Township.

The passenger, who was riding on the vehicle's front rack, fell off the machine and was run over. The ATV rolled and threw off the driver.

Both girls walked away from the accident, the driver unhurt and the passenger sustaining mild injuries.

Again, neither wore a helmet.

"They got lucky," said Todd County Deputy Travis Winter, an officer at the scene.

So far this year, seven people in Minnesota have been killed in accidents involving four-wheelers. Two of the victims were younger than 18.

Since 2000, 129 people have died in ATV crashes, including at least 13 minors.

"For the majority of accidents involving injury or fatalities, the average age is 10 to 19 years old," said Mike Shelden, a conservation officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which monitors ATV crashes.

Most of those incidents, he said, happen along public roadways.

State law requires anyone riding a four-wheeler alongside a road to be at least 16 and have a valid driver's license. It is illegal for anyone younger than 18 to drive an ATV on public land without a helmet.

There are no restrictions for ATV use on private property.

Shelden said he is seeing increasing numbers of rule violations lately, as more and more people take up off-road riding.

There are currently more than 200,000 registered four-wheelers in Minnesota, he said.

"Years ago, almost everybody grew up with a snowmobile in the garage, now that vehicle in the garage is an ATV," Shelden said. "I don't think people's behavior is really different [today], but just by the sheer number of machines - if you have more trains running down the tracks, you are going to have more crashes."

That makes safety all the more paramount, he said. The good news is more people are getting the right kind of training, especially children.

Under state law, those 15 and younger must get certified in ATV safety before they can operate a machine on public lands, and only when accompanied by an adult. That adult must be a parent or guardian for children 11 or younger.

In 2006, the safety certification requirement was extended to include 16 and 17 year olds.

Ken Irish, president of the All-Terrain-Vehicle Association of Minnesota, said his organization supported that legislation.

With 72 affiliated clubs in the state, most of which offer training courses, safety is one of the group's highest priorities, he said.

The course that children must take begins with an at-home study CD, followed by a two-hour classroom session covering proper riding rules and conduct.

They become certified after successfully completing a mock off-road obstacle course, complete with wood timbers to simulate debris and inclines to mimic hill-riding on trails.

"Personally, myself, I've certified probably 175 kids," Irish said. "It's a lot of fun."

Locally, Earl and Sonia Anderson, owners of Ollie's Service in Alexandria, are part of a team of volunteers who offer safety training for youths interested in ATV riding.

They began offering the training courses after an accident more than 20 years ago almost took Earl's life.

In 1984, Earl and the Andersons' son, Terry, were riding three-wheelers around the family's backyard when the hind wheels of the two vehicles clipped each other, hurtling Earl into a nearby trailer hitch.

"I should've had a helmet on and been more careful," Earl Anderson said, recalling the incident. "It wasn't the machine's fault; it was mine."

Earl suffered massive head injuries and was rushed to Fargo's Mercy of Lake Hospital, where he underwent almost three hours of life-saving surgery.

"I remember everything happening up to the accident and then waking up two days later in the hospital in Fargo," he said. "All I can say is the Lord was with me, and I was one of the lucky ones to recover from it."

Ever since, the Andersons have been adamant about ATV safety.

"Safety equipment is important," Earl Anderson said, "and so is knowledge of how to use it."