The Coconino County Sheriff's Office is stepping up its efforts to prevent off-highway vehicle accidents with a new education campaign and a $50,000 grant.
The money helped the office purchase two new off-road vehicles to give deputies access to remote locations and attract eyeballs during education events.
Sheriff's office officials say eight people have died in ATV accidents in the last five years, with four of those fatalities happening last year.
"We've had a problem for a long time with accidents related to off-road vehicle travel," said Lt. Brian Toser. "We have an influx of people that come up to camp and use their ATVs up here from the Phoenix area."
Among the accidents:
– In 2008, three girls were all riding on one ATV on a dirt road in the Parks area when the driver, who had never driven a quad before, lost control and went into a drainage ditch, striking a tree. One of the girls, age 13, was killed in the accident.
– Last year, Search and Rescue was called to Bear Canyon Lake north of the Mogollon Rim when two men, ages 24 and 30, didn't return after taking a late-night ATV ride. Their wives said they had been drinking before they left. Their bodies were found the next morning. Investigators determines they were speeding on a dirt road and lost control, dropping 30 feet into a drainage ditch before they hit a tree.
– In December, two men were riding ATVs near Forest Lakes when one reached up to stop his hat from flying off his head. He lost control in the process and rolled the four-wheeler. The impact left him with severe trauma to his chest and he died in the hospital nearly a month later.
Toser says that the problem is countywide because of the vast forests. That prompted him to ask the state to help fund a new education effort.
OHV owners are required to purchase a $35 sticker for their vehicles. Proceeds go into a fund administered by the state Department of Parks and Recreation, which uses it for signs, trail improvements and education. Toser wrote the grant request from the sticker fund resulting in funds for the two new vehicles.
The sheriff's office OHVs seat two and come with an enclosed cab to keep the driver protected from the elements. They have add-on snow-tracks that let the vehicle operate in deep snow.
Toser said that in the past, deputies have had to take Search and Rescue equipment to go out to accident sites, because they're often so remote. That takes precious resources away from efforts to find lost and injured hikers, bikers, motorists and skiers.
The OHVs have already been used in a joint enforcement project with the Arizona Department of Fish and Game looking for people criss-crossing the forests illegally looking for antlers. However, their primary use will be for education.
"Ultimately, enforcement comes into play, but that's not our main concern," he said.
One is stored in the recently completed Search and Rescue building behind the county jail and the other is kept in the Williams area.
Sheriff's officials plan to take the vehicles out to places like the Cinder Hills east of Flagstaff on busy weekends to deliver the message that ATVs are not toys.
"We really want to prevent OHV accidents and if we can do that without taking enforcement, we will," said Coconino County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Gerry Blair. "But we think there's a hard faction out there that isn't going to change their behavior."
Blair said an incident involving a missing 6-year-old last year is a prime example of the attitude that ATVs are toys. Search and Rescue was called to a campsite for a missing child and learned that he'd gone out alone on a small quad his parents had purchased for him. Search and Rescue found the boy, who had run out of gas in the forest, Blair said.
"You wouldn't buy a loaded rifle and give it to your 6- or 7-year-old," Blair said. "They put common sense on the back burner when they're in their vacation mode."
Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.