Teen’s death adds to concerns about ATVs
FREDERICK COUNTY, Md. – Down a rocky tractor path, through a meadow whitened by the snowy heads of Queen Anne’s lace and just beyond a towering wall of corn on a farm in Frederick County lies a dirt-bike rider’s paradise. Disappearing in a stand of trees, the path snakes over a muddy daredevil course of single jumps, double-dip ramps and turnabouts. It was there that Benjamin Barr and his friend Justin Craigie, two teen-agers aboard powerful, 400cc four-wheelers, were riding last Monday afternoon, Aug. 8. Then, as Ben roared out of the woods and Justin rounded a curve, the two friends who considered themselves almost brothers collided head-on at such high speed that witnesses saw debris fly into the air. “I came around the corner of the cornfield, saw him straight ahead and locked up my brakes,” recalled Justin, 17, during a recent interview at his home in Urbana, Md., about 40 miles northwest of Washington. “I just remember right before I hit him. Then I blacked out.” Ben, 16, whose smile captivated friends and adults alike, died hours later at Maryland Shock Trauma Center. For a time, Justin’s parents, Kenneth and Janet, thought he would die. The crash split his sternum from top to bottom, broke his right eye socket and fractured two vertebrae in his neck. For 1 1/2 days, he lay unconscious. But last Wednesday night, Justin–still in his hospital gown, his right eye stitched, a brace clamped around his neck–returned to the site. Only this time, the meadow was crowded with perhaps 150 people, mostly teen-agers, who stood silently with lighted candles during a memorial service for Ben. “Ben was a wonderful kid,” said neighbor Jo Ostby, 49. “He had the best smile you could imagine. He was the kind of kid who would come in the house and talk to the parents.” As they mourned, however, some also wondered whether the teens should have been riding there without supervision, or riding such powerful machines at all. Ben’s death comes as federal officials are seeking to improve the safety of the increasingly popular vehicles. The four-wheel, all-terrain vehicles, also known as quads or ATVs, have become common, particularly in rural areas where they double as gas-powered workhorses and off-road toys. An estimated 6.2 million are in use. But as ATV sales have grown, so have the numbers of deaths and injuries. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says 5,800 people died in ATV accidents from 1982 to 2003. Nearly a third of the injuries and fatalities involved riders who were younger than 16 riding adult-size machines. In the past month, for example, a 7-year-old girl was killed in eastern Pennsylvania, a 16-year-old boy died in Logan, W.Va., and an 11-year-old boy died in Cook, Minn., while riding ATVs. The commission, which forced manufacturers to quit making three-wheeled ATVs in 1988, has prodded them to do more about safety. In June, its chairman directed staff to do a “top-to-bottom” review of ATV safety standards. “I think our perspective at the CPSC is that there are certain behaviors that, if changed, could save lives,” spokesman Scott Wolfson said. The ATV Safety Institute, a division of the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, counters that 92 percent of all ATV accidents involve misuse: allowing children to operate adult-size vehicles, failing to use a helmet or driving the machines on roads. Even so, the group says the rate of injuries declined by 6.2 percent from 2001 to 2003, and by 32 percent between 1988 and 2002. The group offers cash incentives to new purchasers to complete free training courses. Members of the organization, based in Irvine, Calif., include Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha, Suzuki and Arctic Cat. In an interview, Tim Buche, Specialty Vehicle Institute president, said that further federal regulation targeting dealers would not be as effective as stricter state laws that would allow law enforcement officials to target unsafe behavior. Ultimately, Buche said, the machines’ owners, particularly parents, must be responsible. “You could say, ‘Kids will be kids,’ but it’s important to note that all of these machines have keys. That supervisor who controls the key controls the use of the machine,” Buche said. That Monday, Justin had been driving a 2004 Arctic Cat, Ben a 2005 Suzuki QuadSport 400. Both wore helmets, but neither helmet had been strapped on, Justin said. A few neighbors said they had complained for years about dirt bike and ATV drivers zooming through the fields and woods near the accident site. “Our concern is, this could have been avoided,” neighbor Sandra Hevner, 52, said. “We talked to the parents. We talked to the kids. We talked to the landowner. We talked to the sheriff’s office, and they all blew us off.” Neighbor Clyde Stup, 51, also complained to Justin’s parents, telling them, “One of these days, you’re going to be visiting your son at the hospital, because he was driving without a helmet.” The Craigies say the boys were well-mannered, responsible teen-agers who just happened to love anything with a motor. “You try telling a 17-year-old he can’t do what he wants to do,” said Ken Craigie, 40, an information technology administrator. “We had certain rules. Justin was a very good rider. They also wore helmets.” Ben and Justin became friends in eighth grade. They became closer after Ben’s mother, Nancy, moved to a mobile home in Jefferson, about 14 miles away. Nancy Barr did not respond to an interview request left at her home. Ben remained at his high school and virtually moved in with the Craigies. But he also was devoted to his mother. He was happy when he got a job at Sears because, he told friends, it would allow him to help her. Ashley Grisez, a Sears co-worker, said she had mentioned to Ben that, as a single mother, she had missed her prom. Ben invited her to his, and they went as friends. “I think a lot of people have the what-ifs, but they weren’t irresponsible at all,” Grisez, 22, said. “It was something they both loved, and they were doing what they loved doing.”
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