As spring shifts into gear, so do thousands of riding lawn mower operators, using these domesticated tractors to maintain large green lawns on the rolling, slopping terrain of Carroll County.
Unfortunately, improper operation of riding mowers, especially on steep terrain, can lead to serious - and sometimes fatal - accidents.
According to Carl Purvis, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were an estimated 34,000 riding mower related injuries treated in U.S. emergency rooms between 2010 and 2012.
"Almost two thirds of the injuries seen in emergency departments occur between May and August. The highest numbers of these occur in the month of May," Purvis said.
Significant dangers are presented by mowing on steep slopes or on embankments, according to Purvis, conditions that can cause riding mowers to tip over.
Tip-over riding mower accidents can pin the operator beneath the machine, possibly expose that person to the still spinning mower blades, or trap that operator under water if they were mowing on an embankment that caved in, according to Purvis.
Some of these accidents are fatal, Purvis said, with about 90 fatalities recorded between 2007 and 2009, the most recent years for which the Consumer Product Safety Commission has confirmed fatality records.
"Fatal incidents have several common patterns: the mower tips over; the victim falls under or is run over by the mower, which includes incidents involving young children; or the victim is thrown from or falls off the mower," Purvis said.
In late April this year, a Westminster man was using a riding mower on an embankment near a shallow stream when the mower overturned into the water. The accident was made worse because the man had been operating the mower with his 2-year-old grandson on his lap, and the child was briefly trapped in the water before his grandfather could free him.
Giving rides to children is one riding mower operator error that is pervasive and exceedingly dangerous, according to Dennis Raymond, owner of Liberty Discount Lawn Equipment, a riding mower dealer, parts and repair shop in Upperco.
"I see it all the time. Mom or dad has the little girl sitting on their lap and the blades are going, and it's a disaster waiting to happen ... What happened if they hit a rock, or take a sharp turn and that kid falls off with the blades engaged?" Raymond said.
Further dangers wait for children old enough to believe they can use the mower by themselves, according to Mike Prushinski, a riding mower mechanic at Eldersburg Lawn Mower Repair.
"The biggest issue we've seen with children is that they ride with their parents and feel too comfortable. They think they can operate the machine on their own, and go try to cut the grass and do Mom and Dad a favor, but they really are not capable of operating the unit safely," Prushinski said.
Awareness of one's surroundings is also key, according Prushinski, and operators should always look out for children or pets in the yard, especially before cutting in reverse.
According to Raymond, most riding mower accidents can be prevented just by paying attention to proper operating instructions.
"The biggest thing is to follow the safety instructions in the owner's manual. So many people just ignore those even though we go over the manual with them when they buy a unit," Raymond said.
There are also many safety mechanisms on modern riding mowers that can prevent accidents, so long as they are functional and not disengaged, according to Raymond.
"A lot of the manufacturers have safety switches on the seat that will turn off the blades on a steep slope. The whole idea is, if you fall off, it tells the machine that you came off the seat so by the time the machine would roll on you, you wouldn't get cut. Unfortunately, people sometimes disengage that switch," Raymond said.
According to Prushinski, people also often detach the side chute on the mower deck, where the grass clippings exit the machine, because it is easily clogged, another bad idea.
"The side chute is there to make sure any debris struck by the blades is not flung across the yard or at your neighbors," Prushinski said.
Not only is following the operating instructions for a particular mower important, according to Raymond, using the right mower for the nature of the terrain is also crucially important.
"There are different machines that will hold on the hills better than other machines. There are wheel weights that people can buy so that [the mower is] more stable on hills for them. That's one thing we try to do when a customer comes in, we try to qualify for them for what they're cutting and where they're cutting," Raymond said.
To stay safe, according to Prushinski, follow the safety instructions in a mower's operator's manual, avoid cutting on slopes or terrain that make you feel uncomfortable, and take care of regular maintenance.
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"Checking the mower's breaks, checking the tire pressure so it is riding level, greasing the steering column, and simply making sure everything is working correctly will go a long way to making sure you can safely operate the unit," Prushinski said.