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Deaths Among Drivers of Off-Road Vehicles After Collisions with Trail Gates --- New Hampshire, 1997--2002

During April--July 2002, three deaths occurred on New Hampshire trails when adolescents driving off-highway recreational vehicles (OHRVs) collided with trail gates. Because of these three incidents, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services conducted a study to determine the extent of the problem and characteristics of the fatal events. This report describes trail gate fatalities in New Hampshire during 1997--2002. To prevent trail gate collisions, efforts should focus on increased enforcement of OHRV operating rules, driver education, enhanced gate visibility, and improved signage.

A case was defined as the death of a person on an OHRV who collided with a trail gate in New Hampshire during 1997--2002. Cases were identified by reviewing New Hampshire Fish and Game Department (NHFGD) reports and by searching newspaper accounts by keywords.

Case Reports

Case 1. On July 14, 2002, a boy aged 12 years was riding a registered motorbike on the Rockingham Trail (Rockingham County), when he struck a trail gate at 2:25 p.m. The boy was familiar with the trail, had been riding for several hours, was wearing protective equipment (helmet, chest protector, and riding boots), and was accompanied by adults, but he had not taken a safety course. He looked back just before hitting the gate. His death was immediate and caused by a cervical spine injury.

Case 2. On April 13, 2002, a boy aged 17 years with a valid New Hampshire driver's license was riding an unregistered all-terrain vehicle (ATV) on a closed section of a trail in Keene during a rain storm when he struck a trail gate at 10:23 p.m. The driver's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was 0.22 mg/dL (state BAC limit for OHRV operators: <0.08 mg/dL). The driver was familiar with the trail, had been riding with friends for approximately 1.5 hours when his ATV headlight stopped working, and was reportedly accelerating when the ATV struck the trail gate. He died from massive chest injuries. Neither the driver nor his passenger was wearing a helmet; the passenger was treated for head and neck injuries and recovered.

Case 3. On April 5, 2002, a boy aged 16 years was riding a motorbike without a working headlight on a closed section of the Rockingham Trail when he struck a trail gate at 6:48 p.m. (30 minutes after sunset). The driver had turned onto the trail to evade police, who had noticed his unregistered motorbike. A witness reported that the driver was going approximately 40--50 mph when he hit the gate. Within minutes, the driver died from blunt abdominal injuries. A passenger on the motorbike was not injured seriously . The driver was wearing a helmet; it is unknown whether he had a valid driver's license.

Case 4. On January 26, 2000, a girl aged 16 years was riding a registered snowmobile on a trail in Mason when she struck a trail gate at 7:02 p.m. She was riding with her father off their property for the first time. The lights on her snowmobile were working and she was wearing a helmet, but she had not taken a safety course and did not have a driver's license. She went around two or three trail gates before the fatal collision. Evidence of braking was observed approximately 20 feet in front of the gate. The driver was ejected from the snowmobile and pronounced dead at the hospital; her death was caused by a cervical spine injury.

Case 5. On November 18, 1997, a man aged 31 years with a valid New Hampshire driver's license was driving a snowmobile with an expired registration on the Rockingham Trail when he struck a trail gate at 10:11 p.m. The driver's BAC was 0.12 mg/dL. He was driving without a working headlight, reportedly was driving fast, and was not wearing a helmet. When the driver saw the gate, he told his passenger to duck. The driver died immediately of massive chest injuries, and the passenger sustained minor injuries.

Reported by: T Acerno, New Hampshire Fish and Game Dept; T Andrew, MD, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner; N Twitchell, A Pelletier, MD, New Hampshire Dept of Health and Human Svcs. L Ramsey, PhD, EIS Officer, CDC.

Editorial Note:

The New Hampshire Bureau of Trails (NHBT) manages approximately 300 miles of rail trails. Rail trails are old railroad tracks that have been converted to trails for OHRV (primarily snowmobile) use. The rails and ties have been removed from the trails. The surface is gravel and dirt, and the trails are usually straight for long distances. Trail gates allow access of emergency vehicles and equipment to maintain the trail while excluding conventional motor vehicles (Figure 1). The recommended height of the gates is 3 feet, and the recommended length is >10 feet. The gates are painted Occupational Safety and Health Administration or Omaha orange and have reflectors placed every 3 feet on the cross bar and diagonally on the gate uprights. The New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development guidelines recommend that reflective signs be placed at a reasonable and safe distance ahead of the gates.

In New Hampshire, all OHRVs must be registered with NHFGD. In 2002, approximately 82,000 OHRVs were registered; of these, approximately two thirds were snowmobiles. NHFGD conducts safety training courses for OHRV operators. State law requires that OHRV operators driving off their private property either possess a valid driver's license or have taken the safety training course. Anyone aged <18 years who has not taken the safety course must be accompanied by a licensed adult and must wear eye protection and a helmet. NHBT rules prohibit ATVs or trail bikes on the trails between 30 minutes after sunset and 30 minutes before sunrise, but in the winter, OHRVs can operate at night if they have a working headlight and taillight. In addition, it is illegal for a driver with BAC >0.08 mg/dL to operate an OHRV. On rail trails, the speed limit is 45 mph for snowmobiles and 35 mph for motorbikes and ATVs.

During July 1, 2001--June 30, 2002, nine fatalities occurred on OHRVs in New Hampshire, two of which involved trail gates (NHFGD, unpublished data, 2002). In the case series described in this report, fatalities involving trail gates occurred most frequently among males who were young or intoxicated. A high proportion of the collisions at night occurred on OHRVs that did not have operating headlights. Three of the five deaths occurred on the Rockingham Trail, and two fatalities occurred on sections of trails that were closed to the type of vehicle involved in the incident.

The findings in this report are subject to at least four limitations. First, data were unavailable for some variables (e.g., speed and length of time on trail). Second, cases represent only fatalities and do not include trail gate injuries and hazards. Third, because of the lack of denominators, assessment of risk was not possible. Finally, case finding might have been incomplete, resulting in underreporting of fatalities.

As a result of increased public concern about these fatalities, NHBT has worked to increase the visibility of trail gates. The gates now have a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe, 4 inches in diameter and 10 feet long around the metal bar (Figure 2). The color of the PVC pipe alternates every 12 inches between black, orange, and green. The alternating colors help show definition, which is important for color-blind persons. Warning signs (e.g., "Caution Gate Ahead") are being posted 250 feet in front of each gate on cedar posts with orange and green markings. In addition, flexible posts, which collapse when hit but should not injure OHRV operators, are being placed 100 feet in front of trail gates on certain sections of the Rockingham trail where trail design differs from the usual design.

Measures to improve vehicle safety include safety inspections, headlights that turn on automatically when the OHRV engine is started, and speed governors (i.e., devices to limit maximum speed). Measures to improve driver safety include reducing speed limits on rail trails, strengthening enforcement of OHRV operating rules, requiring that all OHRV drivers take a safety course, and imposing age restrictions for OHRV use (1). NHBT has reduced the speed limit for all OHRVs to 25 mph on trails that allow summer ATV and motorbike use and 10 mph within 250 feet of stop signs and trail gates.

Acknowledgments

This report is based on contributions by P Gray, C Gamache, New Hampshire Dept of Resources and Economic Development. R Shults, PhD, Div of Unintentional Injury Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control; J Magri, MD, Epidemiology Program Office, CDC.

Reference

  1. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention. All-terrain vehicle injury prevention: two-, three-, and four-wheeled unlicensed motor vehicles. Pediatrics 2000;105:1352--4.


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