When sympathy isn’t enough
Profound tragedies like last week’s death of 16-year-old Seth Mader demand not just polite compassion but also boundless, if not always popular, passion — courage to face facts, however unpleasant they might be, and commitment, even amid grieving, to seeking actions that might ensure that no other family must suffer.
Like investigators of airline crashes, our community must focus on saving lives, not just feelings. And the first step is to recognize that ATVs are dangerous — perhaps too dangerous to be allowed unchecked on roadways.
In recent years, ATVs have killed or maimed more Marion County residents than firearms, archery, motorcycles, bicycles, skateboards, rollerblades, skydiving, scuba diving, and other thrill-seeking pastimes combined.
Transportation safety typically is measured in fatalities and serious injuries per mile traveled. By that measure, ATVs are infinitely more dangerous than any other means of transport.
Even when used for what they were designed — checking fence lines, herding livestock, and the like — ATVs have claimed lives right here in our county.
On roadways, they are nothing short of brutal beasts, causing numerous serious injuries, especially on pavement, where they admittedly are less stable than they are on off-road terrain for which they are designed.
Yet ATVs remain incredibly popular, especially among young people. A recent “Dear Santa” section in this newspaper contained a Christmas request for an ATV from a second grader— a second grader! — even though people in their mid-teens and younger are exponentially more likely to be killed or injured.
One of the hallmarks of civilization is that it acts to protect community members from themselves. Things that otherwise would be incredibly popular are outlawed so community members may better resist temptation to use them.
Now may be the time to consider banning ATVs from streets and roads. If city and county officials cannot do this, legislators certainly can. All of us should be calling on them to spare additional families the grief of learning that a young loved one’s life ended too soon because of a machine.
We also should call on elected officials to consider simple logic. Society requires special licenses to operate motorcycles, semis, and other specialized vehicles with special challenges. Why should anyone, even a person not licensed to drive a normal vehicle, be able to operate an ATV?
We limit many activities by age. A young person cannot sign a contract until age 18, legally drink alcohol until age 21, or serve in some elective offices until 25. But young teenagers, known to be among the most frequent victims of ATVs, are allowed to operate them.
ATVs provide little protection in rollovers. We require seat belts in cars and life preservers in boats. Should we not require helmets be worn by anyone on an ATV? This law alone might have saved Seth’s life.
Participants in thrill-seeking sports are urged never to do so alone. ATV riders and those watching or following them need to stay in constant contact and be ever ready to render aid. If Seth had been wearing a helmet and found immediately instead of 2½ hours after he crashed and began bleeding, he might still be with us.
That’s not to suggest that his accident was his fault or the fault of anyone else. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Drive the path he took on Lakeshore Dr. at the time of day when he took it. You’ll immediately see that, unlike nearly all paved county roads, Lakeshore has no center stripe and no edge lines.
East of the dam, where there are no streetlights or yard lights from residences, the road is incredibly dark and hard to see. There aren’t even reflectors outlining the edge of the curve that Seth missed.
Lighting on his ATV may have been inadequate. Augmented light from a pickup following him may have been lost when he somehow became separated from it. But at least some of the blame falls on the county for failing to provide on a heavily traveled route even the minimum level of marking that normally is provided for even the most minor of culverts on seldom-used rural roads.
Everyone obviously wants to extend every sympathy possible to Seth’s family in their incredibly trying times. But we as a community also must recognize that we are honor-bound not to stick our heads in the sand and instead begin addressing the broad range of issues that led to his death.
A year ago, this column offered a plaintive plea after a boy almost exactly Seth’s age suffered serious injury in a similar ATV accident in Peabody. The hope at the time was that the community would come together to deal with ATV issues before anyone else became a victim.
A similar comment was made a few months earlier after a Marion resident was seriously injured in yet another on-road accident involving an ATV.
Enough is enough.
All the pain suffered by far too many Marion County families will be in vain unless society worries not just about comforting victims but also starts confronting the issues that cause the suffering in the first place.
— ERIC MEYER