By JB Clark
TUPELO – The law on all-terrain vehicle use in Mississippi has gotten a little tighter over the past three years.
Helmets are now required, as are certification courses for underage operators.
But many law enforcement officials say the law still lacks teeth because it provides no penalty for driving ATVs on public roads.
Each year in Mississippi, an average of 18 people die in ATV accidents, according to data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and Mississippi State Department of Health. The state’s ATV death rate far exceeds the national average and is particularly high for children under 16.
More than half of ATV deaths occur on public roads.
Mississippi’s ATV death rate is 61.22 per million people, 3.5 times higher than the national average (18.74 per million people). The rate increases for children under 16 where the death rate is 73.76 per million when ATVs are involved, nearly four times higher than the national average of 18.99 per million.
Between 2005 and 2008, Mississippi hospitals reported treating an average of 912 ATV-related injuries for every 100,000 Mississippians, according to the Center for Mississippi Health Policy.
ATV injuries cost $1.3 million to treat in 2009 at the Blair E. Batson Hospital, the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s children’s hospital, alone, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Many law enforcement officers, however, say Mississippi’s law doesn’t have an effective and inclusive punishment for violators so they end up using other laws, like improper equipment or driving an unregistered vehicle, instead of the actual ATV law, to write tickets.
The improper equipment ticket applies to most ATVs. Since they aren’t sold to be driven on paved roads, they often don’t include required equipment like rearview mirrors or proper lighting.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said he has seen an 8-year-old receive an ATV safety course certification making a scenario possible where an 8-year-old with a helmet and ATV certification could drive a properly outfitted ATV, and under the law a ticket could be written but no fine could be levied.
Adams County Sheriff Chuck Mayfield, a member of the Mississippi Sheriffs’ Association’s legislative committee, said in order to give the law a bigger impact, his deputies will write an improper equipment ticket and then tow the ATV if an operator is caught driving it on a public road.
Tupelo Police Cpl. Philip Sanderson said since the ATV law is vague, he also usually tells his patrol officers to write an improper equipment ticket.
Currently, the law says anyone who meets the requirements (a driver’s license, or a helmet and ATV safety course certification for those under 16) can operate ATVs on public property.
A violation of that law can carry up to a $50 fine.
An amendment to the law says, “Nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize operation of an off-road vehicle on a public road or highway …,” but Johnson said that particular section (§63-31-3-6) doesn’t provide a penalty.
Johnson, Sanderson and Mayfield all agree a law clearly banning ATVs on public roads with a clear penalty would give law enforcement a real tool with which to enforce the law and, in turn, deter people, especially young people, from riding ATVs on the road.
Martin Pace, Warren County Sheriff and Mississippi Sheriffs’ Association’s legislative committee member, said he has brought this issue up with his local representatives and it has been discussed in the committee.
“This is something I would absolutely support,” he said of a specific law banning ATVs from public roads. “That’s the whole purpose of having traffic laws, to deter that specific activity. I think the big picture is it will save lives, injury and property.”
Pace said he has trouble with young people riding four-wheelers on subdivision streets in the suburbs of Vicksburg.
Lynn Evans has helped lead the charge for tighter ATV regulation as a lobbyist for the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
She said doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians were so tired of seeing the injuries and deaths caused in ATV accidents they decided to push the Legislature to pass something, and in 2011 a law that required helmets and ATV safety course certifications for operators under 16 was passed.
This year, she said they do not have any specific legal recommendations for Mississippi legislators. She said she would encourage law enforcement groups like the Sheriffs’ Association to recommend legal changes to help with enforcement.