Michael Relyea has been riding off-road vehicles, including ATVs, for 30 years.
He owns three at his 21-acre property in High Springs. Relyea escapes his Boca Raton home and job as a Morgan Stanley financial adviser to ride for fun and race in Quad A, “one notch below pro,” he said.
Relyea, 41, has been in multiple minor accidents, the worst of which occurred in 2009. His KTM-525 ATV rounded the track before a race and the bike in front of him clipped his vehicle, causing Relyea’s 200-pound body to barrel-roll with the 400-pound bike.
After driving himself to the hospital with a dislocated shoulder, Relyea wore a sling for three months after surgery, followed by eight months of rehabilitation. He got back on his bike seven months after surgery.
Off-road motor vehicle accidents can occur at any time — regardless of the rider’s age, skill level and expertise — and 81 crashes involving all-terrain vehicles in North Central Florida, or an average of one each week, were reported between January 2012 and September 2013.
At least 25 children ages 15 and under were involved in those accidents, including some passengers as young as 2, according to Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles data provided to WUFT News.
Relyea has been more fortunate than many others in recent years, including two sad stories that made the news in the past year.
Martez Hawkins and Tyrone Oneal went for a ride in September on a 2008 Polaris Ranger Crew in Marion County. Oneal, 11, made a sharp turn in an open field and crashed. Hawkins, 10, died.
James Allen Treece and his wife Courtney Brooke Treece, 20, rode together in a 2010 Polaris Ranger about one year ago in Hamilton County. They crashed. She hit her head and died.
Florida has ranked in the top 10 states for ATV-related deaths from 1982 to 2007, according to a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission report. About 400 deaths occurred in Florida during that time.
“The media only gets concerned when there is a few sensational, gruesome accidents,” said Mike Jones, owner of Streit’s Motorsports in Gainesville. “But you got to remember in terms of hours of usage, there’s tens of thousands of hours of usage across the state every day; 99.9 percent of it is just no problem.”
ATVs don’t qualify as motor vehicles and therefore don’t follow National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rules and regulations. ATV use and ATV-related incident data are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Nearly 600 adults and more than 100 children die from ATV-related deaths on average each year, according to the commission’s national data from 2001 to 2007, though not all accidents are reported.
ATV-related accidents in Florida
Above is a map of all ATV crashes from from Jan. 1, 2012 through September 2013. WUFT News requested the data from Florida Highway Patrol and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
From 1982 to 2007, 407 Floridians died from ATV-related accidents, an average of 16 lives a year.
From 2008 to 2011, 78 died — an increase in the annual average from the preceding two decades.
The increase may be a result of external factors, including a rise in the state’s population. More people rode in the early 1980s, which is when the commission first began collecting ATV-related incident data.
“Ridership has continued to grow, with 10.5 million 4-wheeled ATVs in use in 2009,” according to the commission’s website.
‘Seventy percent man, 30 percent bike’
If a driver is careless and doesn’t follow proper safety precautions, “bad things are going to happen,” said Sgt. Tracy Hisler-Pace, Florida Highway Patrol public affairs officer for Troop B. “It’s always in a person’s best interest to wear safety gear.”
Because ATVs aren’t allowed on public roads, it’s difficult for public officials to enforce safety guidelines. ATVs don’t have seatbelts; helmet use is critical.
Relyea said riders’ skill levels, physical capabilities, experience and vehicle sizes vary. Most tend to drive at a level past their comfort level, which results in an accident increase.
“A common misconception is that it’s the bike,” he said. “I think it’s 70 percent man, 30 percent bike.”
Terrain is another factor when analyzing causes of ATV-related crashes. A paved cement highway is predictable, but off-road areas (where ATVs are generally driven) are not, Relyea said.
Private properties have unforeseeable pits, holes and hills, which are especially dangerous for children to encounter at more than 60 miles per hour.
Jones said Streit’s Motorsports will not sell an ATV to someone if he or she is accompanied by a minor under 16.
“When a customer comes in, we have to be proactive,” Jones said. “We have to ask them, ‘How old is the intended rider?’ If they say the wrong thing, that’s the end of the discussion … done.”
Florida Statute Title 23 Chapter 316 prohibits any person under the age of 16 to operate or ride an ATV without a full helmet. About one-fourth of the 407 deaths from 1982 to 2007 were children under the age of 16.
“Children watch us, our every move,” Hisler-Pace said. “We are setting an example. Set a good one.”
‘You can’t fix a broken person’
At least once a week, Garrett Lopez cruises out to his Columbia County property to escape the day-to-day pressure of being a full-time student and valet driver.
There, the 23-year-old clears his head and rides his 2007 Suzuki KingQuad all-terrain vehicle on 87 acres of private property.
Lopez has ridden the same ATV for a while now and hasn’t been in any serious accidents.
“I’ve had a few close calls but always wear my helmet, chest protector, boots,” he said, “and I’ve ended up all right.”