Myrrhanda Jones knows all too well what it feels like to lose someone in an ATV accident — a feeling two area families are coming to grips with after a pair of fatal weekend accidents. Jones says she can’t forget that bright, sunny day seven years ago when she hopped on an ATV with her 6-year-old sister, Gwennie, to get the mail at their home in rural Hawthorne.
“That was our treat after we finished our homework,” said Jones, now the 19-year-old reigning Miss Gainesville 2011. The Jones family’s life was irrevocably changed that day after the ATV rolled, and Gwennie was killed.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that 465 Floridians were killed in ATV accidents between 1982 and 2010. It’s the kind of accident that disproportionately affected children younger than 16, who accounted for 23 percent of all reported ATV deaths in Florida, according to the federal statistics.
On Saturday, Cheyenne Ellis, 12, a sixth-grader at Chiefland Middle School, was killed when an ATV flipped on top of her at Gulf Hammock Hunt Club. Sunday morning, Lucas Corbitt, 23, of Bronson, was found dead near the intersection of Northeast 115th Avenue and Northeast 74th Lane in Levy County with an ATV nearby.
It’s a situation that’s all too common, area medical authorities say. Latha Stead, a doctor and professor of emergency medicine at Shands at the University of Florida, said 14 percent of the traumatic brain injuries she sees are caused by recreational vehicles and that 21 percent of those are the result of ATV accidents. She is the principal investigator in a study of traumatic brain injury now under way.
“Most of the time they are not wearing protective headgear, and yet they go faster than bicycles,” she said. “I think they (ATVs) are deceptive because people think they are just like a golf cart — but it’s much more dangerous.”
Across the nation, the laws governing ATV use vary widely. In Alabama, for example, there are no rules about the minimum age of ATV drivers, according to the federal clearinghouse for ATV information. Massachusetts prohibits anyone younger than 14 from operating a snowmobile or an ATV unless directly supervised by an adult, and everyone is required to wear protective headgear. Colorado law forbids anyone younger than 10 from operating on a public street, road or highway.
Florida, by contrast, doesn’t set an absolute minimum for ATV drivers but mandates a helmet for anyone younger than 16.