Tuesday, October 30, 2012

On my soapbox again... for ATV safety

Hey... I thought this blog was supposed to be about fly fishing and nature. What is this all about?

Well... it's about the fact that I don't want to hear about, witness, or be personally involved in any more gruesome scenes that might as well be from a horror movie.

As I sit here and type this, one day before Halloween and several days before I play biology field technician again, I reflect on a horrifying experience Kelly and I had during our last trip to her field research site. I know I may have mentioned previously that helping her with field work is a bit torturous, but this was something altogether more horrible.

Let me tell you our story.

Most of the visits Kelly and her other field assistants have made to her streams have been during the work week. Her field site is pretty quiet on a weekday, and unless the timber company is actually doing work she typically doesn't see other people. I am usually only able to assist her on the weekends because I work primarily on weekdays. The invertebrates in the streams don't know or care what day of the week it is, but the property is just a bit more active on the weekends.

Kelly's research is being conducted on forestry land owned by one of the nation's largest forestry conglomerates, and (in what appears to be an effort to squeeze every last penny out of the land) they lease parcels to local "hunt clubs." I use the term "hunt club" loosely because I don't want anyone to get the idea that these are any sort of elite membership organizations. From what I have observed, these are rather ragtag groups of good ol' boys with guns and four wheelers. (Based on that description, you may be able to guess where this story is going.) As we drove into the property at midmorning on Saturday, October 6th, we were greeted by a number of "hunt club" members hard at work preparing for the upcoming deer season.

As we drove through their assembly, we simply gave what I would call the "country courtesy wave" and went on about our business. It seems a lot of people have keys to the property gates so they don't ask us questions, and we don't stop to chat.

Our stream sampling was typical procedure and thankfully uneventful. We were nearly finished with our day in the field- four out of five streams had been sampled, only one left to go. The last of Kelly's five streams is in a separate nearby area so you have to drive back out to the main highway and enter through another access gate. As we were making our way out of the property, driving slowly down the gravel forestry road, we rounded a curve and came upon a truly terrifying sight.

Kelly and I shared approximately the same thought when we initially saw the bloody scene before us... "Oh my God, that kid accidentally shot his friend." I was stunned enough by the sight that I didn't say anything at first, while Kelly said simply, "they're hurt."

There were two boys, both about twelve or thirteen years old, both covered in blood. One of them was staggering toward us for help, while the other lay motionless on the ground. I immediately stopped the car and we got out. The boy who was on his feet asked if we could help them and give them a ride out. He said something to the effect that he didn't really know what happened, he had "blacked out," but they had lost control of the four wheeler they were riding. When we first arrived at the scene, I hadn't even noticed the ATV wedged between several young pine trees near the road.

Needless to say, neither of the boys was wearing a helmet or any other protective gear. The boy who was initially on the ground picked himself up just seconds after our arrival and began walking toward us. He was covered in blood and pieces of his flesh (presumably from his face) were literally stuck to his jeans. I was worried about his apparent amount of blood loss, and Kelly scrambled to find a towel to give him to hold over his still bleeding face. He had several severe lacerations to his face and wasn't really able to speak. We quickly cleared the back seats of the Subaru and they got in. The boy who wasn't as severely injured asked us several times as we drove out "are we gonna be OK?" All I could tell him was that they were both walking, so they didn't appear to be paralyzed, and I calmly reassured them that they would be fine. We tried to keep them both awake, but they both passed out during the very brief ride back out.

As we drove we passed two more boys (again no helmets or protective gear) on another four wheeler and I told them, "your friends are hurt, you need to go back." They just looked at us confused- not understanding what this strange man was trying to tell them. Then we passed an adult male on yet another four wheeler, and I asked him, "Do you know these kids? They're hurt pretty bad." He looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. Thinking "I don't have time for this," I proceeded back toward the assembly of trucks and SUVs we had driven through when we began our day.

We quickly got back to that area, and there were two men there working on building a deer blind. I got out and told them we had two boys with us who were hurt. One of the men reacted immediately. It was clear he was the father of one of the young men... apparently the more severely injured of the two. As Kelly and I had remained completely calm in the face of this emergency situation, this man was borderline hysterical. He said several things which aren't worth repeating, but Kelly and I both noted a simple phrase that he repeated quite a few times: "never again."

It's hard to know exactly what he meant by those two words, but we interpreted it to mean that either this was not the first time that something like this (maybe less serious) had happened, and this was the final straw... or perhaps that the kids had convinced him to let them ride the ATV while he had his reservations.

The man quickly pulled the more severely injured boy from our car, and loaded him into his SUV. The other boy got into their vehicle unaided. The man never spoke a word to us... not even a simple "thank you." I understand that he was in a very stressful situation. His child is severely injured and inside his head he's probably freaking out about having to deal with the boy's mother, but a "thank you" would have been nice. He certainly wasn't calm or level-headed under pressure- he didn't even take the towel we had given the boy (assumed to be his son) to stop the bleeding. We can only assume he was headed toward the nearest hospital as he put distance between us as we both drove away in the same direction on the same highway.

As he and his casualties disappeared into the distance, we stopped and sampled our last stream, repeatedly hashing out the surreal nature of the experience we just had. The poor kid is going to live the rest of his life with some serious reminders (at minimum facial scarring) of the day when an adult irresponsibly allowed him to ride the four wheeler without protective gear. All we have to show for the incident is a bloody stain on the back seat of our Subaru Outback and a heightened sense of disapproval for kids riding ATVs.

I must admit I didn't grow up riding ATVs like a lot of kids in the South do (including Kelly), and after seeing that boy's face I'm glad I didn't. My mom was overprotective and would have never consented to me ridin' four wheelers... and I never tried to sneak behind her back to do it. I was also more of an urban kid, and four wheelers weren't an everyday part of life for me. I would've had to accompany a friend "out to the country" to have even had an opportunity. Kelly never got hurt during her youth because she was too scared to go fast on her own. A few experiences riding with her older brother in the driver's seat put the fear in her, and a healthy fear is what most kids probably need when it comes to riding ATVs.

Maybe I'm just an old stick in the mud, but I've heard way too many stories of kids getting hurt in ATV "accidents." To me it's no "accident" when an adult allows an underage kid to ride an ATV on their own... especially without a helmet or other protective gear. The experience has even affected people in my own family... and the fear of an impending lawsuit lingered heavy for quite a while. Thankfully, for my unnamed family member, a lawsuit never occurred.

If you're going to allow kids under the age of sixteen to ride, let them ride youth appropriate ATVs and please make sure they are wearing full protective gear. You can't expect a puny kid under the age of sixteen to have complete control of a four wheeler that is powerful enough to drag a bull Elk out of the wilderness. I would also recommend everyone who rides take an ATV safety course, no matter what your age.

If it was up to me, a kid under the age of sixteen who operates an ATV and is injured in an accident would be accompanied by severe penalties for the "responsible" parent or adult. The fact is that adults have to be the responsible parties and say "NO" when the kids try to pressure them into riding. There is no value in "being cool" in your kid's eyes.

In the end, I didn't even learn either of the two boys' names, but I hope they are both recovered from their injuries and doing well...

and I truly hope to never see a scene like that again.

Photo credit: Matt Lehrer

Hopefully, I'll have some fly fishing related content to post again soon. Kelly and I haven't gotten much fishing in lately, and we've both been pretty busy with real life obligations.

For my faithful followers, hang in there, we'll get back on track soon!