By JB Clark/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Three weeks ago, three children were injured and one died when they rode an all-terrain vehicle onto a public road and collided with a truck near the Tupelo Lee Industrial Park South.
Two of the injured children have been released from the hospital, while one remains in Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis.
Children driving an ATV on a public road isn’t explicitly illegal in Mississippi.
State statutes specifically mention ATVs twice, in sections 63-31-1 and 63-31-3, and neither explicitly bans ATV drivers from using public roads, something Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson says needs to be addressed.
“In my opinion, this 63-31-3 is giving ATVs access to the public road if they meet the requirements,” Johnson said. “The law gives permission to be on public property, it doesn’t say a public park designed for ATVs, it says public property, which includes a public road.”
The law says no one can operate an all-terrain vehicle on public property unless they have a driver’s license or a certificate for completing an ATV safety course. They also must be wearing a helmet, if under 16 years of age.
If these requirements aren’t met, the ATV operator is at risk of a fine of $25-$50.
The safety course can be taken by a child under 12 years of age with adult supervision, but Mississippi law doesn’t hold that adult accountable if the child is driving the ATV on a public road with a helmet and safety course certificate.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood has published an opinion on this issue, saying there is no statute concerning operators of ATVs and golf carts on the public roadways because ATVs and golf carts are not manufactured to be operated on the public roadways. He cites Mississippi Code Sections 63-7-1 where an ATV operator on a public road could be charged with operating a motor vehicle on a public road without proper safety equipment.
The section Hood references deals with headlights, break equipment, mufflers, mirrors, windshield wipers and other similar safety features.
According to state law, with a helmet and an ATV safety course certificate, a child under 12 years of age may drive an ATV on public roads, in traffic. The driver in the Lee County ATV accident was 13.
Johnson said with tragedies like the recent accident in Lee County, a state law should specifically address the issue of ATVs on public roads.
“You can’t ride a motorcycle without a helmet, but that’s not addressing the motorcycle. What addresses the motorcycle is having a motorcycle endorsement on your license,” Johnson said. “You’re wasting your time if you’re ticketing the machine for not having a headlight or inspection sticker, it either needs to be legal or illegal to ride it on public streets.”
Between 1982 and 2006, ATV accidents accounted for 105 children’s deaths and 260 total deaths statewide, according to ATVSafety.gov. Between 2007 and 2010, 62 deaths were recorded statewide.
In Louisiana, 191 ATV-related deaths were reported between 1982 and 2006, 75 of those children under 16, and 55 between 2007 and 2012.
In Tennessee, 331 ATV related deaths were reported between 1982 and 2006, 98 of those children, and 101 between 2007 and 2012.
Johnson said two children have died on ATVs in Lee County since he took office in 2003.
The current Mississippi law requiring a helmet and license or safety course certificate was authored by Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford. He said the legislation is a first step in improving safety.
“That’s something they’ll continue to look at going forward,” Tollison said. “I think we have a high number of ATVs per capita and I think it’s important that people be careful in operating them.”
Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, was the funeral director for the 2-year-old girl who died in last months Lee County ATV accident. He said it’s time to talk about ATVs in Mississippi.
“It’s a culture we operate in in Mississippi,” Holland said. “It’s hard to get those laws passed, but the time has come for a serious discussion about the time, place and purpose of four-wheelers in this state.”
Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, said she plans to talk with law enforcement officials about ATV safety laws after the next legislative session.
“We need to do our best to protect those we’re serving and the laws right now may not be as specific as we need,” Collins said. “I want to reach out to the law enforcement officials in my district to see what needs to be added to make this safer.”
Mississippi code section 63-31-1 states that ATVs should be operated as intended by the manufacturer, but the law has no penalty or enforcement possibilities tied to it.
Tennessee law holds parents accountable, charging any parent or guardian with a misdemeanor and a mandatory $250 fine upon a second offense if their child – under age 18 – is found operating an ATV in violation of their laws.
Louisiana allows for ATVs to be driven on the shoulder of public roads for use in farming, but the ATV must be within five miles of the farm and can be driven only during daylight hours by someone in possession of a driver’s license.
The Special Vehicle Institute of America, based in Irvine, Calif., has written model state legislation regarding ATV safety, which places the responsibility of an underage ATV operator on the parent or guardian and clearly bans ATVs from public streets. South Carolina adopted an almost verbatim version of the sample legislation last year.
Johnson said in the recent Lee County accident, no charges were filed.
“At this point there is no evidence that shows the pickup was at any fault,” he said.
“The children that were riding could be looked at for not wearing a helmet and not having a safety course certificate. That is something we’re talking with our county attorney on to see if we want to address it, but at this point we’re concerned about their health.”