From soft-drink commercials to dirt road races, Taylor Clark has seen all-terrain vehicles “airing it out” over sand dunes, coming down for “big hits” in mud bogs, and “parting the waves” through shallow creeks.
Like many of her generation, the 16-year-old daughter of Anthony and Michelle Clark of Columbus appreciates the adrenalin-pumping thrill of an ATV ride.
However, experience has taught the Columbus East senior it’s the unseen and unexpected that quickly can turn a joyful ride into a tragedy.
ATV accidents in Indiana have increased nearly 40 percent during the past several years, from 153 in 2008 to 214 last year.
That included 15 Hoosier fatalities, according to figures kept by the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
Most who were involved never saw nor contemplated the danger until it was too late, DNR spokesman Jet Quillen said.
“If the grass or vegetation is high, you won’t see the ditches, rocks, stumps and other things ahead of you,” Quillen said. “If you take your ATV over a hill or make a sharp turn and suddenly encounter a car in your path — the car is gonna win every time.”
During the first six months this year, 123 accidents involving ATVs have been reported to the DNR, Quillen said. Among the fatalities are a Columbus boy and a Jackson County man:
Cameron Briot, 11, of Columbus, died when his four-wheeler collided with a motorcycle May 8 on a Bartholomew County road.
On April 19, Jay D. Fosbrink, 39, of Medora, died when his ATV tipped over and landed on him, preventing Fosbrink from breathing.
In contrast, Taylor Clark considers herself lucky.
On April 13, the Columbus teen expected to ride a friend’s ATV at the farm off County Road 250 East for only a few minutes before she had to leave for another appointment.
For that reason, she didn’t even think about putting on a helmet or protective clothing, Clark said.
“At my age, nobody thinks about the consequences,” Clark said.
Neither did anyone think about checking the air pressure in the front tire before Clark headed out into a pasture.
As she approached a fence, the teen tried to turn right, but neither the steering nor the brakes were working properly due to the low tire pressure, Clark said.
The only thing the young woman could do was to put up her arms to cover her neck and face moments before she crashed through five strands of electrical barbed wire, Clark said.
“When you are on something so small that goes so fast, it’s way too easy to lose your control,” the teen said.
Due to a serious concussion, Clark was not allowed to read or write for two months, so alternative teaching methods were used to allow her to finish her junior year.
But after 13 stitches were removed from her arms, Clark learned she will bear visible scars on her body that will never go away.
“It’s incredible how, in just seconds, something horrible can happen without warning that changes your life forever,” Clark said.
While most Hoosiers can comprehend the danger in dirt bike riding, the three to four wheels on an ATV make the vehicle appear much safer, Qullen said.
And since the sturdy-looking tires look firmly planted on the ground, helmets and protective gear might seem unnecessary to the novice rider, he said.
“You get a false sense of security, and push the limits a bit,” Quillen said. “The most common type of off-road accident occurs while the operator is turning or accelerating up a hill.”
In some of these accidents, both gravity and unforeseen obstacles combine to make the top-heavy ATV roll over, while other injuries and fatalities are the result of multiple riders throwing the weight balance off, Quillen said.
Either way, the up-to-800-pound machine can easily roll over on a rider, and in nine out of 10 ATV accidents, helmets are not worn, he added.
However, that’s not the greatest danger. Up to 70 percent of all ATV accidents occur on hard asphalt, Quillen said.
“Many who buy them don’t have a place to ride them, and the first place they go is the road,” Quillen said. “These machines were not meant to be driven on pavement.”
By local statutes, it’s illegal to ride all-terrain vehicles on public roads in Bartholomew and surrounding counties, Quillen said. The nearest place where on-road ATV riding is permitted is Morgan County, he said.
The National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety says ATVs seriously injure and kill more than 40,000 of children under age 16 every year.
Those figures prompt most safety advocates to focus their efforts on protecting kids, according to center spokeswoman Regina Taylor.
However, the majority of ATV accident victims in south-central Indiana are in their 20s and 30s — many of whom are intoxicated at the time, Quillen said.
“Most still have a bit of the ‘Superman syndrome’ left over from their childhood, and push the limits,” Quillen said. “They don’t understand that ATVs are hard enough to drive when you are sober.”
What seems to surprise many Hoosiers is discovering that the same state statutes that forbid you from driving while intoxicated in a car or truck also apply when you are riding off-road in an ATV, Quillen said.
Either way, you still are breaking Indiana law by operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, he explained.
Clark said she still enjoys riding ATVs. But when she hops on a four-wheeler these days, she always puts on a helmet, wears protective gear, watches her speed and tries to prepare herself for the unexpected.
She tells her friends that playing it safe on an ATV amounts to nothing more than taking care of yourself.
“I want them to understand you don’t know what is going to happen, and that things can change in a minute,” Clark said. “I’ve learned the hard way how an ATV can completely hurt you.”