Driving through the rural South how many times have you seen some helmetless, 85-pound kid atop a roaring, full-size ATV that’s moving like a scalded dog? If you’re like me, you’ve seen that scene so many times it probably registers only fleeting concern, if anything.

Unfortunately, callousness isn’t a shield against injury. Having done plenty of research on ATV safety, Subodh Kulkarni knows this all too well.

“I started in this job in January 2007,” says the Arkansas Extension engineering machinery specialist. “I’m originally from India and got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering there.”

Before coming to the United States, Kulkarni worked in India for six years in research and development on a small sugarcane harvester. The harvesters used in the United States don’t typically work in the subcontinent because of smaller fields, compaction issues and other things.

In 2001, Kulkarni arrived in South Dakota seeking a graduate degree in agricultural engineering. His work there was on precision agriculture in sugar beets. Two years later, he’d moved to Fayetteville, Ark., and earned a Ph.D. Shortly thereafter, he landed his current job with the Extension service.

Kulkarni’s responsibilities include farm machinery safety as well as cotton ginning safety. When he first began looking things over, “ATV safety — along with tractor and other farm machinery safety — was obviously of prime importance.”

Why was that the case? “For data collection in university projects, I used to ride ATVs. I remember thinking ‘I’m doing this without a helmet, without proper safety equipment.’ I noticed no one else was using one either.”

The ubiquitous sight of kids racing ATVs alongside Arkansas highways disturbed Kulkarni. Equally worrisome were adults holding toddlers while riding four-wheelers.

“How many times have you seen someone with a small child, or even a baby, riding on an ATV? It happens all the time.”

Looking at safety statistics, “I found there were many accidents every year from improper ATV safety. There are thousands of injuries annually across the United States. Some 70 or 80 children come to Arkansas Children’s Hospital every year for ATV-related injuries.

According to the Consumer Product Commission, in 2005 (the most recent data available), 467 Americans died in ATV-related accidents. Those 467 were part of 137,000 people hospitalized for ATV accidents. Children account for about a third of that total.

“I thought that needed attention. To promote safety, one thing that came to mind was an ATV safety essay contest for children. My boss, Dennis Gardisser, and the Extension communications department were for it. So, we started the effort alongside a similar program run by 4-H.”

Last fall, Kulkarni announced an ATV safety essay contest that would run on two tracks. The first was for those under 12 years of age. The second was for kids aged 12 through high school.

The 2007 announcement was sent out through county Extension offices and press outlets. Simultaneously, “we found there are around 360 ATV dealers in the state — or they have ATV-related business in some way. We sent a letter to those dealers explaining what we were doing and asked if they wanted to be involved. They were very generous and provided gifts, or prizes, for the essay winners: helmets, goggles, cash, gift cards, all kinds of things.”

The essays were graded by five people — from both Extension and the Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

The 2007 contest was successful, so this past spring, “we again held the contest. That, too, was a success. We now want to continue this program into the future.”

Essays for the fall 2008 contest are due by Oct. 30 (for more on the rules and requirements see sidebar or contact Kulkarni at (501)671-2151 or e-mail at skulkarni@uaex.edu).

In his Little Rock office, Kulkarni powers up a computer and starts a computer simulation of two flailing occupants in a car rollover. Even using glorified stickmen, the demonstration is alarming.

“This is similar to what you see in car-crash demonstrations with the crash-test dummies, which have sensors all over them. Soon, I want to use the same modeling techniques for ATV accidents. This will be done in collaboration with Chadrashekar Thorbole, the chief safety engineer at the Engineering Institute in Farmington, Ark.

“I’ve discussed this with the Arkansas Children’s Hospital. They are very interested in the endeavor.”

Once the modeling is done, Kulkarni and colleagues will be able to provide information about various ATV accident scenarios.

“We’ll be able to show what happens if you haven’t a helmet and roll to the left at 40 mph. Or, what will happen if you’re involved in a dead-on collision, or drive into a 5-foot ditch, etc. The visualization will be much more powerful than just talking about how important ATV safety is.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com