There is a lot of talk in and around Huntsville, Tenn., this week about a crackdown on ATV riders by state and local law enforcement over the holiday weekend, when thousands of riders were in town for Brimstone Recreation’s annual White Knuckle Event.
Numerous Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers were stationed in and around Huntsville throughout the weekend — at least a half-dozen and at times perhaps as many as 10 — and were issuing citations to any ATV caught riding on the highway or on sidewalks along the highway. Local law enforcement, which almost never issues citations to ATVs for illegal riding, were also writing citations to ATVs caught on the highway.
Tennessee state law, of course, prohibits riding off-road vehicles on the highway. On the other hand, many of the riders ticketed during the weekend campaign have attended this event in the past and have become accustomed to being able to ride their ATVs from a nearby hotel to the event area, and from the event area to convenience stores along the highway. Memorial Day weekend is usually one time when enforcement of state laws regarding ATVs on public roads is relaxed a bit in order to allow riders to access the event area.
Several who attended the event from out-of-town — the kind of money-spending tourists that this economically-depressed community covets — have said they won’t be back. One said he will spend his vacation time at West Virginia’s Hatfield & McCoy trail system where, he said, “you’re actually welcomed by the local community.”
Businesses along the S.R. 63 route through Huntsville say that this weekend was their slowest Memorial Day weekend in years in terms of grocery, beer and gasoline sales, because once riders realized law enforcement was cracking down, the customer flow dried up.
On the other hand, some motorists traveling through the town say they felt safer with the extra law enforcement protection, adding that they have feared for their safety with so many ATVs driving on the road. It’s no secret that some ATV riders take advantage of relaxed enforcement by riding recklessly and dangerously.
The issue has split residents into two distinct camps: one side favors the crackdown, the other does not. Most ATV riders fall into the latter, but a few fall into the former. Most non-riders fall into the former, but some — more than I would have assumed, in fact — fall into the latter. You can see this division even here on this blog, in comments below. Commenter Twice Guessing takes the stance that the crackdown was heavy-handed, while commenter Greasey says that the laws were simply being enforced for a change.
A few things should probably be pointed out.
1.) Anyone who was riding an ATV on the road really has little grounds for complaint. The law says that you cannot do that, and I would presume that most of them are well aware of the law. The merits of the crackdown can — and should — be debated, but don’t cry for the ATV riders, Argentina.
2.) Don’t blame the law enforcement officers for doing their jobs. A couple of the state troopers I spoke with made it clear that they were simply doing what they were told to do. The same applies to the county deputies. My brother, in fact, was one of the local deputies issuing citations on Friday and Saturday. They don’t make the laws, and they don’t get to decide which laws to enforce. It’s more than a little ironic to me that so many people from the local community were praising the THP troopers for standing by the family of Sgt. Brian Boshears after his death just a few weeks ago and those same people are now cursing the same troopers.
3.) With No. 1 in mind, it seems unfair to issue citations to riders who have become accustomed to relaxed enforcement on this weekend. Would it really have been impossible to spend this year issuing warning citations and then begin issuing the real thing next year on the event weekend?
4.) There are two questions that deserve to be asked and answered: first, why the crackdown by both state and local law enforcement now, after so many years? And, second, who requested or ordered the THP presence? Maybe there were enough complaints of unsafe riding that THP and the local sheriff’s department felt compelled to do something. Maybe word finally reached high enough that people with enough authority demanded that the law be enforced. If so, fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. But these questions should be asked. If it turns out that this crackdown was politically motivated at any level, there should be repercussions for that.
5.) This is largely a no-win situation for law enforcement. Do nothing and they’re accused of being derelict of their duties. Enforce the law and they’re accused of being heavy-handed. There seems to be no happy medium; one side or the other is going to cry foul.
For the record, I spoke with Scott County Sheriff Mike Cross about the decision to cite riders who ventured onto the highway with ATVs. He said that he did not request the THP presence.
“They’re the THP. They’re state guys. They don’t need my permission and they aren’t going to ask for it,” he said. “And people complain to them just like they complain to me. They hear it just like I do. Some people will call them because they say we don’t do enough to enforce the law on four-wheeler riders. And, to be honest, they might be right.”
Cross said plans for the crackdown by THP had been in the works for quite some time, however. He added that it was coordinated at least in the early stages by one person — who he identified — but said that isn’t being discussed publicly out of respect for that person.
Notions that his own department acted out of political motivation are “completely ridiculous,” Cross said, noting that ATV riders from one side of Huntsville’s dueling ATV campgrounds were ticketed just as much as ATV riders from the other side.
“The bottom line is that we can’t have ATVs out there drag-racing side-by-side on the highway,” the sheriff said. “It’s not safe. You can’t have ATVs out in four lanes of traffic that is coming and going in both directions. It’s not safe for motorists and it certainly isn’t safe for the guys on ATVs. If an ATV tangles with even a small-sized car, it isn’t going to be a pleasant outcome for the ATV.” He noted that there are safe ways that ATVs can get to and from the event area but said that it will take a coordinated effort on the part of everyone involved — from his own department to the companies hosting the weekend festivals to the Town of Huntsville itself.
In the end, this weekend may well lead to definitive action at both the local and state level as to where and when ATVs may be ridden on the roadway during these event weekends. We may see some legal concessions made for where ATVs can lawfully drive on the public roadways instead of just a good ol’ boy agreement that law enforcement — both local and state — will turn their heads. Before the weekend had ended, wheels were already turning, involving officials at various levels. There will likely be talks in the weeks and months ahead, and perhaps even the involvement of the Tennessee General Assembly before all is said and done. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
In the meantime, Scott County needs to make a decision: does this community want the ATV traffic and the tourism dollars generated by it, or not? There is a huge rift within the community between those who are all for it and those who are dead-set against it. That rift does not go unnoticed by the out-of-town riders, and it has discouraged a few from coming back.
If the community enjoys seeing local businesses that can cater to these riders prosper, and enjoys the tax dollars that the riders bring in, then some efforts should be made to accommodate those riders and welcome them with open arms. Travel to Harlan, Ky., or the communities around the Hatfield & McCoy trails and you’ll find small towns that do everything within their power to welcome ATV riders — and that includes the citizens as well as the officials; the hourly workers as well as the business owners. The same cannot currently be said for Scott County. That does not mean law enforcement should disregard the law, or that they’re to be blamed for enforcing it this past weekend. It simply means that, for the future, there needs to be concessions made so that ATV riders can get from one place to the other without being in violation of the law.
If the community doesn’t want the ATV riders here, that’s okay. But we should probably stop complaining about the economic state of our community if we’re unwilling to embrace an event that in just seven years has grown into a shindig worthy of national attention.