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.
Still, the majority of fatal crashes on all-terrain vehicles involve juveniles.
In March 2005, a 9-year-old Saucier boy died in an all-terrain vehicle accident at a relative's home when his ATV struck a clothesline type of wire used as a dog run. Two months later on Mother's Day 2005, two 11-year-old best friends died in an ATV accident on a paved road in Jackson County. The boys were riding on the same ATV, with no protective gear.
Then, in November 2006, a Harrison County High School student died in an ATV accident in Stone County after he lost control of the vehicle on a gravel driveway. He died of head and chest injuries.
Since 2001, there have been more than 10 fatal accidents on ATVs in South Mississippi, with at least three involving children between the ages of 9 and 11.
Nationwide, more than 11,688 people have died in ATV accidents since 1982, with more than 25 percent of those killed under the age of 16. In Mississippi, 334 people died in ATV accidents from 1982 to 2011, according to CPSC research.
"You can't blame everything on the ATVs," Benton said. "We never blamed the machine. I never should have let Gerald out of my sight. It's a parent's job to protect them."
As four-wheelers continue to gain popularity, law enforcement officials fear they will continue to see more and more accidents. They are encouraging residents to take heed of manufacturers' warnings and use the vehicles appropriately.
"All-terrain vehicles are designed to be off-road," Brisolara said. "There are thousands of acres they can be riding ATVs on. Law enforcement can't be out in the woods all the time. The laws that exist, we encourage. But if a parent allows a 2-year-old to get on an ATV and they get hurt, then shame on them. Safety is key."
Gerald Benton Sr. couldn't agree more.
"Nobody thinks something will happen," Benton said. "I didn't."
Hancock County Sheriff Ricky Adams said they experience more problems with adults on ATVs crossing paved roads or riding on the road's shoulder.
"Probably, 50-50 wear helmets," he said.
The key, he said, is practicing safety.
"We can make all the laws we want but we can't make people smart enough to follow them," Adams said. "There is always a concern for younger people who may not know what they are doing. The key is parents need to monitor them, make sure they are wearing protective gear and put them through an ATV course."
Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com