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home : sports : local sports August 17, 2017

7/6/2017 1:14:00 PM
OUT IN THE OPEN- New ATV Helmet Law Takes Effect
Brent Wheat

If your grandkids take the old 4-wheeler out for a ride on the back 40 without wearing a helmet, you're now breaking the law.

Starting July 1, 2017, a major new law affecting outdoor recreation took effect with barely a whisper in the general media. House Enrolled Act 1200 states that everyone under the age of 18 must wear a helmet when operating any off-road-vehicle (ORV). The law is intentionally broad and covers nearly every type of ORV on public or private property.

With any major legal change, there are questions and we went to a great source to get answers, Indiana Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Captain Bill Browne, the chief spokesman for the DNR's Division of Law Enforcement.

Bill started our talk with a sobering statistic: "Over the past 5 years, we (Indiana ORV users) had 400 significant injuries to children under the age of 18, along with 29 fatalities." He also pointed out that while everyone understandably focuses on fatalities, the serious traumatic brain injuries that often occur in ORV accidents are in some ways just as devastating because the consequences are life-long for the victim, families and caregivers.

And, the logic follows, much of this death and heartache could be reduced by the simple act of wearing a helmet.

The DNR has been working to reduce ORV injuries through public education but the growing parade of misery continued until members of the public joined the effort. "We wanted to bring attention to it (the problem of childhood ATV injuries)," Browne said, "and in doing so, some of our constituents stepped up and contacted legislators and said 'hey, let's put a helmet on these kids.'"

Some people, this writer included, often fret about "Safety Nazis" who want to make everything in life ultra-safe and, by extension, boring. Browne doesn't believe HEA1200 is an over-reach and likes the law because it forces adults to take reasonable responsibility for youngsters who typically don't make good safety-related decisions, while protecting the freedoms of adults who can.

"I'm a rider myself and I think this law is fantastic," Browne said. "I do like to make my own decisions as an adult, but I'm awfully glad somebody made my decisions before I became an adult. And that's what the objective is."

"It went from our message of 'You should' to 'You shall,'" he noted, "and that is a big step." Now Browne and the DNR are trying to get the word out that helmets for kids under 18 are the rule of law.

While HEA1200 applies to youngsters, the owner of the ORV is the one who will probably get the ticket, a Class C Infraction that carries a maximum fine of up to $500. Browne noted that older kids also shoulder their share of responsibility and could earn a ticket themselves. "The officer has the opportunity," Browne explained, "...to make a determination 'is this child old enough to take responsibility for their actions?' If I was sixteen and have a driver's license, I should be wise enough to wear a helmet."

The law includes just a couple of exceptions: golf carts and ORV's that are operated solely for the purpose of farming. Claiming the farming exception won't work if the kids get caught zooming around at 8 p.m. on Saturday night. Small electric toy vehicles designed for backyard or sidewalk use are also exempt.

There aren't any other loopholes. Go-Karts, mini-bikes, dirt bikes, jeeps, "Gators," 4-wheelers, electric off-road bikes and every other type of motorized vehicle designed to travel overland is covered under the helmet law. In other words, if it has a motor and is driven off the pavement, everyone under 18 years of age should be wearing a DOT-Approved helmet. End of story.

If a child is small enough to require a car seat, the DNR suggests that the child is too young to partake in the rigors of off-road travel. If you still insist the baby comes along, they need both a car seat and a helmet.

So, are the "Game Wardens" going to be hiding behind every bush to get a chance to write tickets? Not really. Any police officer in Indiana can enforce HEA1200 but it will be a major focus for Indiana's 214 conservation officers who actually want to promote, rather than hinder, outdoor sports.

"Conservations officers are all about outdoor recreation, family fun and getting outside to have a great time with your family," Browne said. "We want you to do it safely and we want your children to do it safely. We're not asking them to agree with this law; we're asking them to comply with this law."

We do agree: It's a reasonable precaution, like wearing a life vest, with a small cost but potentially huge benefits.

Make sure you put a lid on the kids!

You can hear the complete interview between the author and Capt. Bill Browne on the WildIndiana Podcast on iTunes or WildIndiana.com

Brent T. Wheat

Brent T. Wheat is an award-winning columnist, and publisher of WildIndiana.com. His column appears weekly in The Times.

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