Securing the future

By ED MERRIMAN Baker City Herald February 03, 2010 11:43 am
Jerry Johnson hopes to create hundreds of jobs in Baker City by making the safety equipment he designed mandatory on new ATVs

Jerry Johnson straps himself into an ATV equipped with the Pro-Tec Safety System he designed at his Baker City shop. Johnson, who moved here five years ago, hopes to convince the Consumer Products Safety Commission to mandate ATV manufacturers install such devices, which are designed to protect riders during rollovers. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins)
Jerry Johnson made the most of his moment in the spotlight Sunday when he pitched his Pro-Tec ATV Safety System to a crowd of about 50 people attending Rep. Greg Walden’s town hall meeting in Baker City.

Johnson, owner of Pro-Tec ATV in Baker City, said he and his wife, Nadejda Johnson, have a patent pending on an ATV safety system that he believes could create hundreds of manufacturing jobs in Baker City, save thousands of lives and prevent thousands of injuries to children and adults across the country.

“The next big step is for the Consumer Products Safety Commission to mandate the safety systems to be installed on ATVs,” Johnson said, just as the agency required seat belts in cars starting in the 1960s.

He said he’s made his case to officials with the CPSC, and he thinks they’re taking seriously his call for mandatory ATV rollover protection.

“We’ve got to the point where they are calling me now,” Johnson said.

He said there’s about 14 million ATVs in use today across the United States and millions more around the world. About 1 million new ATVs are built and sold annually.

Johnson told those attending Walden’s town hall meeting that he believes if the CPSC mandates ATV rollover protection there would be so much demand for his Pro-Tec system from the seven major ATV manufacturers that he could put hundreds of people to work building them in Baker City.

And even then “we couldn’t keep up with the demand,” he said.

During his pitch Sunday, Johnson shared some statistics from a safety commission report that puts the death toll from ATV crashes in 2007 at 750 and the number of injuries at 150,900 the same year, with medical costs of an estimated $2.3 billion nationwide.

Johnson also said that during the first six years of the Iraq war, 31,010 soldiers were wounded in action, while 809,700 people were injured on ATVs.

“I call that a tragedy of epidemic proportion people are not aware of, and they need to be aware of,” Johnson said.

Johnson said officials at the safety commission have told him ATV safety is a hot topic, and that the commission is studying his request to make his unique roll bar and seat belt combination mandatory equipment on ATVs.

Johnson said what makes his system unique is the design of the roll bar and seat belt that gives riders flexibility to move around while riding, but locks up, keeps them in their seat and protects them during rollovers.

“We had two accidental rollovers during the filming of our promotional videos,” Johnson said. “Just to see this thing roll I got a lump in my throat, but when it was over, the driver was sitting there with a smile on his face.

“The only injury was a scratched elbow, and I immediately went to work and modified the roll bar design so that couldn’t happen again,” he said.

At his shop in Baker City, Johnson pointed out the loop of steel tubing he added to the prototype he has mounted on his own ATV and the models he uses to test his equipment.

Climbing into the seat of his demonstration ATV, Johnson latched himself in with a double shoulder-strap arrangement resembling the harnesses astronauts wear.

While harnessed, Johnson stood up and leaned in all directions to demonstrate how much freedom it allowed for an ATV rider to look around, such as a hunter might do looking for deer or elk. However, with any quick movement, the safety belt locks to keep the rider under the protection of the Pro-Tec roll bar.

“I designed and built everything, except for the seat belt mechanism, which I bought from another manufacturer,” Johnson said.

“We all hear stories of people killed in ATV rollovers, but nobody ever thinks it’s going to happen to them or to their children,” he said. “You’re riding along when all of a sudden you hit a rock and suddenly your ATV’s rolling over on top of you, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. It happens when you least expect it.”

In a rollover, Johnson said “the first biggest mistake people make is putting their foot out in a feeble attempt to stop it from rolling over.”

That instinctive reaction is responsible for thousands of broken legs every year, so in addition to the rollover protection, Johnson said he designed a foot guard, which keeps riders from sticking their feet out. 

Nadejda Johnson said her husband became interested in designing and building a rollover safety system for ATVs shortly after he ordered his first container load of Terrain King ATVs, which are manufactured in China, and opened an ATV sales company in Baker City almost two years ago. 

After the Johnsons opened their ATV business people started telling them about ATV accidents they’d heard about or had witnessed in which children and adults were killed or seriously injured in rollover accidents.

“Jerry said this can’t stay the same way. The problem had to be fixed. So he said we have to fix it,” Nadejda said.

Johnson had already been fabricating attachments for ATVs out of welded angle iron such his Iron Ant flatbed trailer, which attaches to the rear of an ATV.

He also designed a pinned hinge that allows the flatbed trailer to be raised and latched in place, sort of like the tailgate on a pickup.

Once Johnson designed and welded his roll bar, safety belt system and the foot guard, Nadejda used her engineering skills to draw blueprints and fill out paperwork submitted to the U.S. Patent Office.

“In April it will be two years after we filed non-provisional patents,” she said. “We know our patent is on the table in the patent office. About two years it takes to get the patent process complete.”

The Johnsons expect patents for both the safety system and the trailer will be approved in the United States and Canada.

Jerry Johnson was a partner in several lumber mills in Oregon and Washington before selling those interests and moving from Eugene to Baker City about five years ago.

He said he’d like to help the local economy and create jobs here.

Johnson said he has talked to Behlen Manufacturing, which already has a crew experienced in welding and fabricating gates, corrals and other items out of metal tubing similar to his rollover system, and a company out of Wyoming has also approached him about taking on the work.

In addition, Johnson said a manufacturer’s representative from China named John Wu traveled to Baker City to look at his ATV safety system and made a proposal to build them for around $200 each.

“I think one of the reasons the Chinese economy is growing so fast is because when they hear a good idea, they go investigate it — even if it’s half way around the world,” Johnson said.

With shipping, importing and markups for distributors and dealers, Johnson said the retail price in the United States and Canada would be in the ballpark of $800 for a Pro-Tec system.

Johnson said he believes the units could be built here in Baker City for about what he would wind up paying if they were made in China and shipped here.

He’s sent letters to the seven major manufacturers of ATVs sold in the United States urging them to put his safety system on their products, which Johnson contends would essentially eliminate all ATV rollover deaths and injuries.

“If I can get just one of them to build this rollover system into their machines, I’m convinced the demand would be so great the rest would follow,” Johnson said.

On Feb. 18 at 10 a.m. the Johnsons are hosting an open house at their shop, 95 Eccles Road in Baker City, for ATV owners and others to see their display models with the safety systems and other products attached, watch a video showing the safety system in action, and to hear an emergency room doctor and others explain why such rollover protection is needed, and about their experience testing Johnson’s equipment.