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Right way to ride

Tennessee ATV Safety Program creates awareness among high schoolers
Story by: Chris Villines; photos courtesy of Cascade High School 1/27/2020


This young rider is wearing the proper gear — helmet, goggles, gloves, closed-toe shoes, long sleeves, and long pants — as he navigates a trail on an all-terrain vehicle (ATV). Safety measures like these are being taught through the Tennessee ATV Safety Program at schools in nine Middle Tennessee counties.
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Few things are more fun than hopping on an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) for an off-road ride. These powerful machines are also an essential piece of equipment for many farm operations, as farmers can use a four-wheeler to quickly traverse fields and pastures.

But far too often, medical facilities like Nashville’s Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt become the destination for youth whose ride went wrong. ATV accidents were the fourth leading cause of trauma admissions — 67 in total — to Monroe Carell in 2018.

“Two common things we see with our ATV trauma patients — they are not wearing helmets and they are either carrying passengers or are a passenger themselves,” says Purnima Unni, Master of Public Health, Pediatric Trauma Injury Prevention manager at Monroe Carell. “Both can result in serious injuries. Head injuries are the leading cause of death and disability in ATV-related crashes.”

Statistics from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reinforce the prevalence of the problem. The agency states that between 1982-2016, there were 3,232 ATV-related deaths nationwide of children younger than 16 years of age; of those, 1,411 victims were under the age of 12. In 2016 alone, U.S. hospitals treated an estimated 26,000 ATV-related injuries involving children under 16 years old.

An initiative launched during the 2018-19 school year is aimed at reducing those numbers.

It’s the Tennessee ATV Safety Program, a partnership between Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, Tennessee 4-H, Tennessee FFA, Farm Bureau Health Plans, and the Tennessee Department of Education. The program was rolled out last school year in six Middle Tennessee counties  — Bedford, Cannon, Clay, Giles, Robertson, and Trousdale — with Putnam, Overton, and Smith counties joining the effort at the beginning of the current school year.

“Based on research [Monroe Carell Children’s Hospital at] Vanderbilt conducted, the program was offered to the six counties with the highest reported amount of youth ATV accidents treated at Vanderbilt,” says Sean Giffin, Bedford County 4-H Extension agent. “Each county runs the program separately, but the goal is the same: to create awareness among students and the community of the dangers that come with ATV use and to communicate how these ATVs can be driven in a safer manner.”

Sean has worked closely with Cascade High School FFA and its advisor, Mike Swafford, on mentoring the four student leaders — Carissa Farrar, Madelynne Carson, Cole Nevills, and Brianna Ledbetter — entrusted with relaying program content to their classmates.

“Kids are going to listen more when their peers talk about ATV safety rather than adults,” says Mike. “We give our input, but otherwise we’re in the background. We want those four student leaders to be the ones the kids are listening to.”

Student leaders from each of the schools involved with the program began their journey with a daylong session at Monroe Carell that focused on giving them the necessary tools to support a yearlong campaign in their schools and communities. During the intensive hospital session, students were involved in a mock trauma simulation in the Emergency Department and assigned an “injury” from the rehabilitation team to help them better understand the risks ATVs pose.

“Before the program, my thought on an ATV accident was someone bumping their head or something minor like that,” says Carissa, a junior at Cascade. “But we learned it can be so much worse.”

They also learned the key safety measures that can help make many of these accidents avoidable:

• Wear protective gear on every ride — helmet, goggles, gloves, boots, long sleeves, and long pants.

• Never ride an ATV with a passenger or ride as a passenger.

• Do not drive ATVs on paved roads.

• Do not permit children to drive or ride adult ATVs.

• Children 16 and younger should not ride any ATV due to the high risk of injuries.

“People just hop on without thinking,” says Madelynne, also a junior at Cascade. “It could be someone going to feed their cattle. They’ve done it a thousand times without wearing a helmet and nothing’s happened. But all it takes is that one time for something to go wrong. I know I’ll never ride an ATV again without a helmet.”

Taking the knowledge they gained at Vanderbilt, student leaders from the nine-county area were then tasked with communicating ATV safety at their schools. The Cascade group presented to some 300 students on Oct. 23, even staging a detailed mock crash as part of the day’s activities that incorporated local EMS personnel, the Tennessee Highway Patrol, and Vanderbilt’s LifeFlight helicopter.

The crash scenario involved a car with a distracted driver colliding with an ATV carrying two riders, both of whom were not wearing helmets. The ATV was traveling at a high rate of speed when it collided with the car, sending the passenger through the car’s windshield and resulting in death.

“The students saw the impact of what can happen when you’re not prepared to properly ride an ATV,” Mike says. “We actually loaded someone into the helicopter and watched it take off. [Bedford County General Sessions] Judge [Charles] Rich came out and conducted a trial to convict the driver of the car with vehicular homicide, and [Bedford County] Mayor Chad Graham signed a proclamation to make it ‘Ride-on Tennessee ATV Safety Day.’ The wrecked car and a wreath with a cross were left out in front of the school for a while to keep what happened in everyone’s minds.”

Both Carissa and Madelynne say they could tell the mock crash made an impression on their classmates.

“Even the day after the crash, you could feel the heaviness in the air,” Madelynne says. “In class, people were sitting there in silence thinking over what took place.”

“I heard a lot of people say that they didn’t expect it to be as intense as it was,” adds Carissa. “Seeing the crash was an eye-opener for all of us.”

And the hope, Sean says, is that the Tennessee ATV Safety Program will turn awareness into action.

“The more people we can get this in front of, the better,” he stresses.

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