by Malia Rulon
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHARLESTON -- Riding a four wheeler down county roads and through mountain valleys can be wholesome family fun, exhilarating and even down right West Virginian.
Until an accident happens.
That's why lawmakers say West Virginia needs to put manufacturer-recommended safety regulations for all-terrain vehicles into law.
"This is not to limit anyone's use of a fun and practical vehicle, it's just to help establish some safety guidelines," says Delegate Virginia Mahan, D-Summers.
Sen. Mike Oliverio, D-Monongalia, says it's about changing the ATV culture so riders think more about safety.
"Anytime you can do that, you impact long-term health care costs as well," he says.
Mahan and Oliverio introduced nearly identical bills Friday, HB2500 and SB215, that are the result of a joint legislative study on ATVs.
Other ATV legislation has been introduced in the House, HB2017 and HB2287, and the Senate, SB50 and SB85.
Generally, the bills would prohibit ATVs from private property without permission, state parks or forests, or public roads. Some exceptions would be allowed, such as authorization to use the Hatfield-McCoy Trail, or farmers using roads to cross from one parcel of land to another.
ATV operators are already prohibited from driving recklessly or while intoxicated, but the bills would also ban the common practice of riding double.
Helmets would be required, but the bills differ on who would have to wear them. Dealers would be required to sell less-powerful ATVs to children under 16.
Some bills delve into compliance with existing title and privilege tax laws, and allow municipalities to ban ATVs from city streets. One requires riders to complete a safety course. Others deal with accident reporting, required equipment and penalties for violations.
"ATVs here are totally unregulated at this time," says Mahan, a former motorcycle rider who now works as a professional safety organizer. "So this is breaking new ground."
West Virginia is one of six states with no laws regulating ATVs.
Most West Virginia communities follow an informal 1991 opinion from then-Attorney General Roger Tompkins, who said ATVs are legal on roads because nothing in state law specifically prohibits them.
But law enforcement officers complain that without specific laws dealing with ATVs, they have trouble enforcing anything other than basic traffic regulations.
Data collected by the Consumer Product Safety Commission indicate 124 West Virginians have died in ATV accidents in the last decade -- the second highest in the nation after Pennsylvania, says Dr. James Helmkamp, an epidemiologist at West Virginia University.
Helmkamp says the death count is a low estimate, and when compared to the overall population, West Virginia's 0.7 ATV death rate tops the nation and is eight times the national rate of 0.09.
"When you look at our accident rate, clearly some sort of safety measure is needed," says Leff Moore, who represents the Recreational Vehicle Association of West Virginia.
"The warning stickers on the machines say they're not designed for more than one passenger, but there's hardly a West Virginian who hasn't seen his neighbor riding two or more people on an ATV. And that's dangerous."
But Sam Love, who represents the newly formed West Virginia Motorcycle and ATV Association, argues that there are five times more ATVs per capita in West Virginia than in any other state, so when you look at the number of deaths in relation to the estimated 140,000 ATVs in the state, the death rate is about average compared to other states.
Legislation on ATVs has been introduced in West Virginia for several years, but has always been opposed by riders and dealers who say safety precautions are already encouraged and should be a personal choice not a government mandate.
"I always tell people they should wear the helmet, but telling a guy he has to, it puts more restrictions on what he can and cannot do," says Chester Smalley, who owns Gravely Polaris in Dunbar.
Smalley says he's concerned about how regulations would affect sales of the $4,500 vehicles and a newly emerging ATV tourism industry.
"So many people can't get over our terrain and how beautiful it is. They should be able to come here and ride a vehicle without being harassed," he says. "I'm not saying it shouldn't be regulated to a point, but if it gets too stiff, people just aren't going to buy."
Jeff DeVol, who owns DeVol's Cycle Center in Parkersburg, says he's concerned that legislation wouldn't affect irresponsible riders, but would add restrictions to those who use it for "legitimate and very popular recreation."
House Judiciary Chairman Jon Amores, D-Kanawha, says he expects the Legislature will take up ATV regulation this year, but he wasn't sure which chamber would tackle it first.
"I think the severity is too great to ignore," he said. "It's an idea whose time has probably come."