Fall is a popular time of year for North Texans to enjoy the outdoors on their off-road vehicles, but it’s also one of the seasons where doctors say they see an uptick in injuries, especially among kids.
The reason for most injuries, according to experts, is when riders don’t follow the rules of off-roading.
“Most incidents occur because of several warned-against behaviors,” said Amber Purcell, a chief instructor with the ATV Safety Institute and the Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association (ROHVA).
Purcell travels around the country teaching safety classes to civilians and the military. She trains people how to safely operate both traditional all-terrain vehicles, or ATV’s, and those called side-by-sides.
Side-by-sides, which are popular in North Texas, are a new type of vehicle which is like a hybrid of Jeep and golf cart that’s meant to be driven off of paved roads only and typically used for farming and hunting.
Three years ago Clayton Burkhammer was joyriding in a side-by-side on his family's 800-acre farm in Ravenna, about 80 miles north of Dallas, when he was involved in a crash. “I decided to start going down the hill really fast, start fishtailing,” said Burkhammer, who is now 16-years-old. “I came back down and tried, you know, to turn around and make a U-turn real fast. And when that happened, it fell over and kind of landed on my leg and crushed it.” Burkhammer, who loved playing baseball, was airlifted to Children’s Medical Center in Dallas facing the frightening possibility he may lose his leg.
“We didn’t know from day-to-day what was going to happen,” said Fred Burkhammer, Clayton’s father.
Anthony Riccio, a pediatric orthopedic trauma surgeon, sees kids injured on off-road vehicles all too often.
“These are very large, very powerful machines,” Riccio said. “When they’re operated by relatively small children with less muscle coordination than adults, and possibly poorer judgment in that 12- to 15-year-old range, when they are prone to higher risk behavior than adults, they’re already at risk.” Riccio is studying these crashes at Children’s Medical Center. Over the past five years the hospital has seen 334 off-road vehicle-related ER visits. Of those, 158 have been broken bones, mostly to lower extremities. But the lack of kids wearing the right gear also surprised him.
“Eighty-percent of children presenting to Children’s Medical Center with a four-wheel ATV injury were neither wearing a helmet, nor protective clothing. That’s too high,” Riccio said.
Gunter High School junior Brittnee Gillespie, who has been riding ATV’s and side-by-side’s for years, admitted neither she nor her friends wear helmets when they ride off-road.
Gillespie, too, was in a side-by-side crash this past May in Gunter. Gillespie and her friend, Monce Robledo, were riding a side-by-side being driven by another friend who had never driven before.
“She was about to hit a mailbox, and it took a sharp turn and dragged us underneath,” explained Robledo. "Everything was a black blur." The vehicle dragged the girls 30 feet, according to Gillespie.
“It severed my tricep and shaved my elbow bone like, completely off,” said Gillespie, who also suffered from leg injuries. “In my foot, it broke six bones, and my muscle that was in it got ripped out.” “As a mom, it’s hard to watch your child in that much pain,” Said Jean Gillsepie, Brittnee’s mother.
Gillespie and Robledo both spent weeks in the hospital and faced multiple surgeries.
“It was bad,” said Maria Robledo, Monce’s mother.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission reported in 2011 that there were more than 100,000 emergency room visits related to ATVs in the United States and that 30 percent of those crashes involved kids under the age of 16. That age group also accounted for one-quarter of people killed on ATVs.
Additionally, from 2008 to 2011 more ATV riders died in Texas compared to any other state.
Texas law mandates that on public land riders have a safety certificate and take a training class. There are also age restrictions. No one under the age of 14 can ride an ATV on public land without a guardian or adult and riders must also wear protective gear, including a Department of Transportation-approved helmet and eye protection.
Experts from the ATV Safety Institute recommend the same precautions be taken when riding on private land.
In other words, they recommend riders should get proper training, which is different for ATV’s and side-by-sides, follow age limits set by manufacturers and wear the right protective gear.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen after you get on. You just don’t know.” said David Morris, a chief instructor with the ATV Safety Institute. “A bee could come out and sting you. You never know when it’s going to happen and that could make me gun the machine and hit something. And if I had my helmet on, because I always will have my helmet on, there would be no injury.” The ATV Safety Institute also advises, along with a helmet and goggles, riders should wear long sleeves, long pants, over-the-ankle boots and gloves on both ATV’s and side-by-sides. It warns these vehicles are meant for off-road only because they are less stable on paved roads. And on side-by-sides, a driver’s license is a must and seatbelts must be worn at all times.
“You would not hand the car keys to your 7-year-old because they can reach the gas petal. It’s not appropriate. It’s not designed for them. They can’t handle the responsibility that goes along with this,” said Purcell.
On the day of Burkhammer’s crash, he was not wearing his seatbelt. His sister Cassi, who was 11 at the time, wore hers.
“She was fine,” Burkhammer said. “She had her seatbelt on and I didn’t.” His road to recovery took a year. Doctors had to grow the bone in his leg that was crushed by the thousand-pound vehicle. He was in a wheel chair, on crutches and then a cast.
“It was a long time,” he said.
But ultimately his leg was saved, though his massive scars tell his story.
“I was young and I was reckless, Aad I didn’t really know what would happen. And I thought that I was all big, bad and unstoppable,” Burkhammer said.
“He’s probably 100 percent I’d say,” said Fred Burkhammer, Clayton’s father.
Robledo and Gillespie are still recovering. Gillespie is in physical therapy three days a week, but she said she lost a college softball scholarship because of the crash.
Robledo is still in a wheelchair and just started physical therapy.
"I’m determined to come back the second semester walking,” she said.
But she’ll have to sit on the sidelines without playing softball her senior year.
Still, out of tragedy, the town of Gunter rallied to help. The day of the crash dozens of residents drove to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas to see how they could support these families. They also hosted a car wash and a softball game to raise money. Gunter ISD Superintendent Jill Siler said she was very proud of her community and the school.
“It was really the students who stepped up. Members of the softball team our captain and co-captain who came to the adults and said what can we do?” she said. Robledo was even elected homecoming queen. She was wheeled on to the football field. It proud moment that also served as a stark reminder of how four-wheeling fun can change lives forever.
The next training class offered by the ATV Safety Institute will be Saturday, Nov. 16, at 9 a.m. in Irving. For more information go to atvsafety.org or call to register 800-887-2887. For more information on classes from the Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association (ROHVA) go to rohva.org.