Avoid deadly mistakes with ATVs
July 26, 2015, started off as an ordinary summer Sunday for the Bruggenschmidt family of Tennyson, Indiana. Daughter Kate, 11, was doing what she loved most: playing softball. During a break between games, Kate (pictured with her younger sister, Emma) and some friends went to a teammate’s house to relax and unwind.
Mom Ashlee says her biggest concern that day was that Kate would wear herself out swimming before the next game. She never imagined that her 73-pound daughter would get on a 750-pound four-wheeler with a friend. While the girls were riding, the ATV flipped over, crushing Kate beneath it and killing her instantly. The official cause of death was massive cerebral disruption – blunt force trauma to the head.
After the accident, Ashlee, an elementary school principal, husband Eric, and younger daughter Emma, now 9, wanted to find a way to honor Kate’s memory and her kind-hearted, energetic spirit. They started the Play for Kate Foundation in order to raise money for college scholarships through basketball, softball, and golf tournaments; educate the public about ATV safety; and advocate for laws to keep kids safer on ATVs.
“For the first six months, I wouldn’t even talk about ATVs when reporters asked me about Kate’s accident,” Ashlee says. “I could talk about Kate or the foundation, but ATVs weren’t a part of our lifestyle. We didn’t live on a farm. We never talked to Kate about them. We talked about bullying and social media and gun safety, but it never crossed our minds to talk to her about four-wheelers. I was uneducated and had to learn about them.”
When Ashlee looked over Kate’s death certificate, she noticed the accident report filed along with it was completed by a conservation officer from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. “I didn’t know what conservation officers did before this,” she says.
She later met with Captain Bill Browne and learned about the role that officers play with ATV safety and accidents, and that there is no funding for ATV education in the state of Indiana. “All they did was distribute brochures on safety and laws in their booths at fairs,” she says.
An Idea is Born
The Bruggenschmidts and Browne became friends, and Play for Kate was asked by the Indiana DNR to host a booth at the Indiana State Fair. While at the fair, they noticed a remote-control animatronic fire truck that talked to kids about fire safety. It reminded Ashlee of the Buster the Bus robot at her school, which talks to kids about bus safety. Those devices planted the seed for an idea: an animatronic robot of a child on an ATV.
Browne and Ashlee brainstormed about the idea. “I wanted it to be engaging and interactive to keep kids’ attention, and Bill knew what he wanted it to do from a safety standpoint,” she says.
At first, the animatronic companies they approached turned them down, but when they pitched the idea to SuperDroid, a North Carolina company that builds tactical robots for the military, they found a match.
After months of drawings and plans going back and forth between Play for Kate and SuperDroid, Safety Sam was born and patented by Ashlee and Browne.
The child-size robot (pictured here with Browne and Ashlee) wears a helmet and all the needed safety gear, and it rides on an appropriately sized SUV. An officer standing off to the side voices Sam, so kids can interact and ask questions, and the robot responds to them. Ashlee says more than one adult has been fooled, thinking the robot was a real boy.
There are now four ATV safety robots – three Safety Sams and one Safety Sara – and they have been in front of 60,000 people in several states, at 4-H events, county fairs, and safety and trauma conferences. “The kids love Safety Sam and Safety Sara,” Ashlee says. “Now other states are requesting to purchase one.”
The foundation is working with those states to help secure funding for the robots. They sell for around $12,000 each, which is just enough to cover the cost of production and shipping.
“We want Safety Sam out there to continue the message of ATV safety – not to fund our group,” she says.
Changing the Law
When Ashlee discovered there were no laws regulating helmet use for children riding on ATVs, she and the Play for Kate Foundation became instrumental in changing that.
In 2017, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb signed HB 1200, known as the Play for Kate bill, into law. It requires all children under the age of 18 to wear a helmet when riding ATVs on public and private property.
Ashlee says there was some resistance from the public, especially parents who wanted to put car seats in side-by-side vehicles. Two legislators tried to modify the law to make children in car seats or harnessed with seat belts exempt, but their attempts failed due to recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the ATV manufacturers themselves.
“We have had no pushback whatsoever from manufacturers or dealers,” Ashlee says. “Their recommendation is that all riders wear helmets, and children under certain ages shouldn’t ride at all. We aren’t anti-ATV; we just want people to be safe.” Polaris and Honda have met with Play for Kate, and some ATV dealers have partnered with the foundation to get the word out about safety.
“There was pushback with the seat belt law when it was introduced, as well. Now the culture has changed, and it’s second nature. That’s what we hope to accomplish with the helmet law,” Ashlee says. “ATVs can go 60 or 70 mph. Kids driving cars are required to wear seat belts and take driver’s ed, but with ATVs, we just give them the keys and tell them, ‘Good luck.’ We don’t require training or safety gear, but we’re working to change that mind-set.”
While 2016 was the deadliest year in Indiana history for ATV fatalities, Ashlee says once the bill was signed into law, the number of fatalities fell dramatically.
“Our goal is zero preventable deaths on an ATV,” she says. She wants to make ATV helmet use a nationwide requirement for children, and she recently met with legislators and safety groups in Washington, D.C.
Protecting All Kids
Ashlee says the legislation is necessary to protect children. “As an adult, you can make your own decisions, but it’s your job to protect your kids – as parents and legislators,” Ashlee says.
“We didn’t know Kate was on a four-wheeler. Someone made that decision for us and our child died,” she says. “No one asked our permission. We never would’ve allowed her to do that. The family who allowed that was uneducated about ATVs and considered them toys.”
Ashlee says parents just don’t think this will happen to them. Kids don’t think it will happen to them.
“Tragedies happen in the blink of an eye and change your life forever. Putting on a helmet is a very small inconvenience when it comes to saving your child’s life,” she says.
Find ATV safety resources, download a free ATV safety app for kids, and see a video of Safety Sam in action at playforkate.com.