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.
The Levy County Sheriff’s Office received a $90,000 grant between 2008 and 2010 to publicize ATV safety rules and to pay overtime for the ATV laws to be enforced.
The Levy County Commission in 2006 made it illegal to operate an ATV on any roadway, paved or unpaved, restricting ATV riding to certain areas, Maj. Evan Sullivan said.
“I think in the overall scheme of things, the percentage of ATV fatalities is low, but two in one weekend is too many,” he said. “Way too many.”
The Latest Victims
Cheyenne was not wearing a helmet as she traveled south on a limerock road and then lost control of the vehicle at about 10:15 p.m. Saturday, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. Her brother, Brody Ellis, 5, was riding with her and escaped with minor injuries, according to the report.
Her funeral service is scheduled for 3 p.m. Thursday at the First Baptist Church of Chiefland.
Dennis Webber, the pastor of her church and assistant principal of Chiefland Middle School, recalled Cheyenne as a sixth-grader who was showing promise in softball.
Counselors from the Levy County School District on Monday helped students at the 353-student school deal with the sudden loss. Webber estimated that about 85 students came to the library during the day to talk about Cheyenne’s death.
“She’s been with us right from the beginning of the school year, and it’s a very tight-knit group,” he said.
In Bronson, Lucas Corbitt’s family recalled a young man who loved the outdoors — hunting, fishing and four-wheeling. A previous four-wheeling accident damaged his hearing, preventing him from joining the military as he wished, said Dorothy Corbitt, his aunt.
His mother, Amy Corbitt, recalled her youngest child thinking about starting a business but mostly enjoying life after getting a welding certificate at Santa Fe College.
“He would have loved to have found his niche in life,” she said.
The time that his accident occurred has not been determined. The ATV he was riding collided with a dirt embankment on the west side of the highway, according to a report from FHP.
Making Sense of It All
Jones said she’s not sure why the ATV she was driving with her sister on the back rolled on the way to the mailbox.
Rebuilding her life from that shattered day — while keeping her sister’s memory alive — has been the platform of her reign as Miss Gainesville, which will come to an end Feb. 25. She gives out stuffed, toy monkeys as she visits children who are struggling with heartaches in their own lives.
“I’d like to think that I can spread hope by sharing my struggles,” said Jones, who is a student at the University of Florida. “I like to show them they can move on from whatever they are dealing with and make a difference as well.”
Jones said she’ll never say that she won’t ride on an ATV because of the tragedy. In fact, her family still has the vehicle. But there’s one thing she said she wishes she had done differently when she was 12.
“We lived in the country, and we didn’t think of it, but we should have been wearing helmets,” she said. “When you’re taking a trip to the mailbox, you don’t think of those things.”