Detroit police seek ways to curb ATVs

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — The proliferation of all-terrain vehicles on city streets has police officials considering ways to move them off the roads.

The scrutiny comes after a 15-year-old ATV driver died when he tried to elude a Michigan State Police trooper who tried to pull him over. The trooper gave chase, zapped him with a stun gun, and the teen crashed and died.

An attendant of a vigil for Damon Grimes last week pops a wheelie on an ATV. Grimes died when he crashed an ATV after being zapped by a trooper’s stun gun. The vehicles are not street legal.

The incident prompted the suspension of the officer and propelled the Michigan State Police to change its policy on giving chase in Detroit.

It’s also leading Detroit Police Chief James Craig to consider another possible solution: Setting aside land where off-road vehicles could be safely driven.

The Aug. 26 crash and death of Damon Grimes has focused attention on the use of the recreational vehicles in Detroit, where some residents say the drivers of four-wheelers, dirt bikes and go-karts present a safety risk.

“You see them driving up and down the road at 50-60 mph,” said Jonathan Pommerville, a Brightmoor resident. “They go through red lights like it’s nothing. There was a kid on a go-kart who hit the turnaround on Grand River going about 60 mph.”

Others say the off-road vehicles provide harmless fun.

“I see quite a few of them,” said Vaughn Arrington Jr., president of the Pelke Family Block Club on the east side. “Groups are getting them and riding throughout the neighborhood in Morningside and Osborn.

“... They get these four-wheelers and motorbikes, and they get people together for something positive. I think the police officers may want to talk to the kids and ask them to stay off the main roads and to be careful.”

Ron Szostec, 73, said ATV riders are a common sight on his southwest Detroit street.

“You see them on their four-wheelers going up and down Lonyo, mostly kids,” he said. “I usually see them during the day, so it’s not like they’re driving at night where you can’t see them. I don’t think it’s a big problem.”

Craig said he’s trying to figure out ways to curb the proliferation of off-road vehicles, which he said puts residents and drivers at risk.

“They’re dangerous when not used how they’re supposed to be used,” Craig said. “These things shouldn’t be driven on the street, and they pose a danger to both the public and rider. It’s been a real issue for law enforcement.”

People ride their ATVs and dirt bikes across Gratiot near Rossini Drive last week.

Craig said the risks include young, unlicensed drivers, usually without safety helmets, often weaving in and out of both vehicle and pedestrian traffic, not heeding stop signs. The off-road vehicles often also don’t have the required safety and warning equipment, such as turn signals.

Craig said drivers often taunt police, popping “wheelies” in front of squad cars before fleeing.

“These vehicles are fast, and they can go places squad cars can’t, like through vacant fields,” Craig said. “We need to find a way to abate this without engaging in high-speed pursuits.”

Detroit police policy calls for officers to chase motorists only if they’ve committed violent felonies and pose a risk to the public, while state police policy has allowed troopers to pursue motorists who commit misdemeanors or traffic offenses. Thursday, MSP changed its policy to limit Detroit pursuits only for felonies.

“It’s not worth putting people at risk doing a high-speed chase,” Craig said. “One thing we’re exploring is using air support to track down and apprehend people who are driving these vehicles.”

‘I like to ride in the park’

An attorney for the family of Damon Grimes has filed a $50 million lawsuit against the trooper.

Grimes was killed while driving an ATV about 5:30 p.m. Aug. 26 at Rossini and Gratiot on Detroit’s east side. Officials from the Michigan State Police, which patrols the 9th Precinct as part of the Secure Cities partnership, say a trooper spotted Grimes driving the vehicle on the street, which is illegal, and ordered him to pull over.

Police say Grimes didn’t comply, so the trooper pursued him, at one point deploying his Taser during the chase. The teen then drove the ATV over a curb and slammed into the back of a pickup.

The trooper has been suspended with pay and placed on desk duty for firing his Taser while in a moving vehicle, and both state and city police are looking into the incident.

Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office spokeswoman Lisa Croff said the death was ruled accidental.

Arrington’s father, 60-year-old Vaughn Arrington Sr., said police will sometimes chide him when he’s driving his dirt bike on the street.

“I’ve had them yell at me, ‘get that thing out of the street,’ ” he said, adding he’s seen officers confiscate off-road vehicles being driven on thoroughfares.

Vaughn Arrington Sr., 60, seen at Dorais Playground, said, “I like to ride in the park, and the police don’t seem to mind that.” He said he drives carefully and doesn’t pose a risk.

A warning label on Arrington Sr.’s dirt bike states: “This vehicle is an off-road vehicle and is not intended for roads and highways,” but he said he drives carefully and doesn’t pose a risk.

“The police don’t ever say anything when I’m riding it on the sidewalk, but I think it’s more dangerous on the sidewalk because kids are playing,” he said. “I like to ride in the park, and the police don’t seem to mind that.”

Craig said he plans to look into setting aside land where people could drive off-road vehicles safely.

“We’ve talked about starting a drag strip here in the city as a way of stopping young people from engaging in illegal drag racing; maybe there would be some value in having an open space for these (off-road vehicles) to engage in that activity as well,” the chief said.

At Thursday’s meeting of the Board of Police Commissioners, member Reginald Crawford agreed he’d like the city to explore setting aside some of the city’s vacant land for off-road vehicles.

“There are enough overgrown lots, and it wouldn’t cost too much money to clear some trails,” Crawford said. “The city owns many of these lots. It’s time to make a withdrawal from the land bank.”

Craig said he’s spoken with Riverfront Conservatory officials about possibly donating land for the venture, like a similar recent initiative aimed at keeping car shows from snarling traffic.

“We had young people who were having these underground car shows and taking over the city’s streets,” Craig said. “We came up with a solution: The Riverfront Conservatory donated a plot of land at no cost to let them have their car shows there.”

State Police Lt. Mike Shaw deferred questions about the issue of off-road vehicles in the city to Detroit police.

‘Pedestrians in danger’

Several YouTube videos show people lurching through Detroit streets while driving ATVs and dirt bikes. In one video, multiple dirt bikes and ATVs are shown during the day speeding through heavy downtown traffic, zipping between cars and blowing red lights.

Michigan law prohibits off-road vehicles on public roads. It’s illegal for anyone younger than 16 to drive an off-road vehicle “unless the child is under the direct visual supervision of an adult and the child has in his or her immediate possession an (off road vehicle) safety certificate,” according to the statute.

“ATVs are designed for off-road use only,” said David Moore, a salesman at Macomb Power Sports in Chesterfield Township, which sells ATVs. “There are also age restrictions. But we get the stories all the time, and I see it with my own eyes: underage children riding an adult-sized ATV with no safety equipment, and riding where cars are.”

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Michigan ranked 10th in the nation for ATV crashes on public roads from data totals for 1982-2012, the latest year for which statistics are available. Nationwide, 28 percent of injuries sustained in ATV crashes involved children younger than 16, according to the commission. Dirt bikes are included among those statistics.

New ATVs cost between about $500 and several thousand dollars, whereas new dirt bikes start at about $350.

William Eckel, a resident of Warrendale on the city’s west side, said he sees children riding them in his neighborhood and is worried for their safety.

“I see kids as young as 8 or 9 out here flying up and down the street,” he said. “They don’t have a driver’s license; it’s a nightmare waiting to happen.”

Damon Grimes’ 17-year-old sister, Dezajanai, told The Detroit News this week that ATV use is common on the east side.

“It’s normal for people here to ride ATVs in the street,” she said.

Craig said most people who drive off-road vehicles on city streets likely would be ticketed for reckless driving, and, if applicable, driving with no insurance or license.

“It’s a problem, and it’s not just here in Detroit,” Craig said. “If you look on YouTube, you’ll see it’s huge in Atlanta as well. We just have to be thoughtful in our approach, given the dangers to public safety. You can’t pursue them and catch them because these vehicles are so fast.

“They put pedestrians in danger, and more than likely children. But pursuing them adds to the danger. So we need to think of a better strategy. I think we can come up with a solution. I don’t have an answer yet, but I’m looking for one.”

ATV safety

The Consumer Product Safety Commission offers tips for safe ATV usage:

■Do not drive ATVs on paved roads.

■Do not allow a child younger than 16 to drive or ride an adult ATV.

■Do not drive ATVs with a passenger or ride as a passenger.

■Always wear a helmet and other protective gear such as eye protection, boots, gloves, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt.

■Take a hands-on safety training course.

Source: Consumer Product Safety Commission

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN