Shawn King's RZR had pinned his arm between the door and the asphalt. Blood dripped from his head to the road surface just a few inches below. Shawn didn't hurt—adrenaline, or shock, numbed his battered body. That wouldn't last, and without a person in sight on this country road, he was stuck.
Motorsports run in the family—everyone in the family rides. His youngest daughter raced in kid's cross and helps maintain the family vehicles, but you can’t call Shawn an average rider. He knows his stuff. He competed in various UTV, ATV, and snocross competitions up until 2012. He had a successful career and collected a nice payout from time-to-time.
He doesn’t just leave it on the track either—when he’s not riding he runs a service shop where he works on anything with an engine including a large number of UTVs, ATVs, and snowmobiles. He estimates that he has put his hands on over 1000 different machines every year, and he sells over 100.
He owns 5 machines himself—a Honda 400, Honda 450, Sportsman 850, RZR 1000 XP 4, and a RZR 900 S. Every year puts 5000 miles on his ATVs and 7000 miles on his UTVs. That’s a lot of time behind the wheel and a lot of experience.
Motorsports is a lifestyle and passion, not just a hobby.
Shawn's shock tension was too high. Every little bump and pothole on the road sent shudders through his machine. It made the ride a little uncomfortable, but it didn't matter. At least not until his hat flew into the road...
Shawn wasn’t doing anything special when he had his accident—he was just taking his neighbor for a quick spin.
Shawn drove, and his neighbor sat shotgun in a 2015 RZR S 900. He planned on riding to his house, turning around in his driveway, and then driving back to the shop. At about 1/4 mile from his house, his hat caught a breeze and flew into the road.
The hat lay slumped in the middle of the road, and Shawn made a U-turn to go back and retrieve. As he was finishing the turn and began accelerating, his right-hand tires went off the road and into the shoulder that sat a few inches lower.
Maybe his shock tension was a little too high, maybe he accelerated too quickly before straightening out, or maybe he jerked a little too hard on the wheel, but as his tires came back up on the road, they sprang off the ground and lifted the right side of the machine. He straightened the machine at the same time which caused the weight to shift significantly to the driver’s side.
Several things happened all at once when the RZR landed on its side. First, Shawn’s head whipped into the seatbelt bracket above his head, and because he wasn’t wearing a helmet, he went out cold.
Second, his stock 3-point seat belt didn’t catch a quickly as it should have. Instead of holding him tight to his seat, his body was allowed to move, and his left shoulder landed on the asphalt.
Third, his arms were limp along with the rest of his unconscious body. His left arm stayed inside the machine and got tangled in his seatbelt, but his right arm stretched across his body and landed between the door and the road as the machine bounced and skidded the fifteen or so feet before stopping.
Shawn was stuck, and he was bleeding.
His free left hand was tangled in the seat belt. His pinned right arm stretched across his body and restricted his movement. He managed to untangle his left hand and get his cell phone out of his right pants pocket to call his wife. He was so close to his house that he heard her engine start.
In the short time it took his wife to arrive, a pair of Good Samaritans had helped Shawn and his stunned passenger out of the vehicle. It took everyone, including Shawn and his wife, to get the RZR S 900 back on its wheels.
Shawn hopped in the driver's seat and drove it the rest of the way home. He had a gash in his head and hand, and he had some road rash on his shoulder, but he wasn’t in pain. His wife implored him to go to the hospital, he was sure he was fine because it didn’t hurt. It wasn’t until his daughter came home and began dry heaving at the sight of him that he realized his injuries were worse than they felt.
The hospital was a 40-minute drive away. About 20 minutes into the ride, whatever adrenaline and endorphins had been coursing through his veins wore off, and the pain came on hard and fast.
"The pain was so bad I can't describe it," and when you look at the pictures you can understand why. They got to the hospital, peeled away the blood-soaked towels and blankets, and took stock of the damage.
His head had multiple wounds from where it banged on the seat belt anchor and the road. They put dozens of staples in his head to close the wound.
His left shoulder and a section of his upper arm had serious road rash that had to be scrubbed to remove the gravel.
His right hand took the brunt of the damage. Skidding 15 feet with his hand pinned between the asphalt and RZR flayed the skin off the top of his wrist—removing flesh, nerves, and blood vessels down to the muscle.
He spent 24 hours in the ICU until the damage had been assessed and treated then moved to a regular floor for the next six-and-a-half days. There the doctors did what they could to help his wrist heal. He's lucky his injury didn't end in amputation.
When he got out of the hospital, he went to physical therapy two times a week for two years. Eventually, everything healed up—the road rash disappeared, and the gash in his head closed leaving only a scar.
His wrist healed up too, but not completely. Just looking at him you can’t tell there’s anything wrong, but shaking his hand reveals a weak handshake. His thumb and index finger are almost 100%—almost—but the rest of the fingers on his right hand are mostly useless due to nerve damage.
His time in the hospital maxed out his insurance policy—over quarter million dollars. But that wasn't his last expense. His passenger who walked away without a scratch or a bruise threatened to sue for pain and suffering and got several thousand dollars (also covered by insurance) out of him as well. It was an insidious move that added even more insult to injury.
What went wrong? What could Shawn have done differently to prevent such a devastating accident? Shawn attributes the magnitude of his accident to two things: relying on the OEM 3-point harness and driving, even a short distance, without a helmet.
Had he been using a 4 or 5-point harness, he would have been held firmly to his seat and his shoulder wouldn’t have dragged along the pavement. If he had a helmet, he wouldn’t have cut his head open and he would have remained conscious to keep his arms safe inside the cab.
Today, Shawn is still an avid rider, and still works in his shop, though it’s a bit more difficult with his injured hand. ATVs, UTVs, and snowmobiles are still a way of life, an everyday occupation, and his favorite hobby.
He's more cautious on the trail and road. Helmets, harnesses, and reinforced roll cages go with him on every ride. "I don't find these UTVs as safe as the manufacturers want you to believe they are," and he's not wrong. The stock safety features are designed to keep you alive. You need to make safety your own responsibility if you don't want to end up with your own grievous injuries.
After that accident, Shawn made sure to take safety into his own hands for every ride. Whose hands is your safety in?
Someone in the US dies every single day on average in an off road accident. If you want to make sure it isn't you, you have to be uncompromising when it comes to safety. Most injuries and fatalities are caused by rollovers, and if you want to avoid getting banged up like Shawn, then you need to wear a helmet and use a harness every time you ride. Otherwise, you're just asking to become a statistic.
Hopefully Shawn's story has you thinking about safety a little more seriously—a stock machine and a prayer just won't cut it. If you're interested in making some changes our Basic Safety blog post is a good place to start. If you're doing everything we recommend there, you'll have a better outcome in a rollover.
Check out all the pictures below. They are a very graphic reminder of why your UTV is no joke.