- Associated Press - Saturday, March 29, 2014

SAUCIER, Miss. (AP) - Gerald Benton II nearly died after his all-terrain vehicle flipped during a race with his father in 2004. Had he been wearing a helmet, he would’ve walked away from the accident with minor injuries.

After three months in an Alabama hospital and more than two years of rehabilitation plus continued treatment for seizures, short-term memory loss and vision problems that have left him legally blind, Benton talks freely about the accident. Still, his words come slowly at times, the result of a traumatic brain injury that left him unable to walk or talk for more than six months.

At 25, the bespectacled young man doesn’t blame anyone for what happened. Instead, he’s focused on his continued recovery and offers other ATV enthusiasts a word of advice.

“Wear a helmet,” he said. “And watch where you are going. It just isn’t cool to have a brain injury. Your brain is the most important part of your body. But I don’t blame the four-wheeler for the accident. I wasn’t wearing a helmet.”


Gerald’s mother, Doris Benton, described the crash “as a freak accident.” She said, “We didn’t have helmets before the accident. We all have them now.”

South Mississippi law enforcement officials say such accidents are a troubling trend. But laws on all-terrain vehicle use in Mississippi have gotten a little stricter in recent years, and local law enforcement officials say even stricter laws would not necessarily prevent accidents resulting in death or serious injury.

In Mississippi, a safety education certificate is required for the driver unless the driver has a valid driver’s license. In addition, riders under the age of 16 are required to wear an approved helmet, and have an ATV course certification.

Also, four-wheelers are illegal to ride on any public road, in an emergency lane or on the shoulder of a public road. While ATV manufacturers provide safety precautions for drivers, there are no specific charges for all ATV violations. The law does, however, call for a $50 fine for those under the age of 16 who are operating an ATV without following state requirements.

Law enforcement officials say they use whatever laws that apply to get the ATV driver’s attention, such as ticketing them for careless driving or speeding. In addition, authorities often tow ATVs because giving warnings or issuing tickets doesn’t necessarily stop the problem.

“We charge them with any violation that we can if we find them on the roads,” Harrison County Sheriff Melvin Brisolara said. “The majority of these riders are juveniles.”

In fact, most of the victims of fatal ATV accidents are children under the age of 16 who are riding adult-sized ATVs without adult supervision, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

And national and local law enforcement officials say the majority of ATV accidents involving children are the result of unsafe driving practices and the failure to wear protective gear, such as goggles, helmets, long pants and long-sleeved shirts.

“But most of the time, they are out in the woods where we don’t see them,” Brisolara said. “As far as safety is concerned, if it’s a juvenile riding them, parents need to come into play and see if the juvenile is responsible enough to be on one. You have to ride them the way you are supposed to ride them and no one can do that except the driver themselves.”

In February, the first and only ATV death this year was reported in Jackson County.

Authorities said an 83-year-old man died after he crossed a paved road in front of the path of a truck traveling on Forts Lake Road. The truck’s driver swerved to avoid hitting the man, but the truck clipped the ATV.

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