When Scott Shacklett backed up a riding mower earlier this month outside his home in Lenexa, he didn’t see his 4-year-old son, Truett, behind him.
The mower severed one of Truett’s legs below the knee.
Emergency medical personnel flew Truett to Children’s Mercy Hospital. He later was transferred to the University of Kansas Hospital for treatment by a vascular specialist and surgery. He remains in intensive care.
It’s a nightmare scenario no parent wants to imagine. Yet riding mowers pose a particular risk to children who dart behind a machine without the driver’s notice.
Neither police nor the family identified the make or model of the mower involved in the Shacklett accident. Yet industry critics say even the newest, safest mowers tempt drivers to routinely keep blades in motion when they drive backward.
Consumer safety advocates argue that an industry standard that requires a mower’s blades to stop while backing up helps but that dash-mounted override switches can negate the critical safety measure.
They say relocating that switch behind the driver’s seat would make operators turn around to push a button that keeps blades swirling while the mower is in reverse.
“The industry — and I give them credit for this — reacted to (back-over accidents) and came up with what they thought was a good solution, and that solution was workability combined with convenience,” said Peter Sawchuk, who tests mowers for Consumer Reports magazine. “There’s a better way to do this, and the missing element is common sense: You’re not forcing people to look backward.”
More than 14,000 people are treated in emergency rooms every year for injuries caused by riding mowers, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal watchdog agency.
Lawnmower accidents, meanwhile, are the leading cause of major amputations for children younger than 10, according to the Amputee Coalition.
“These are devastating injuries,” said Sarah Hoehn, a pediatric critical care physician at the University of Kansas Hospital.
Hoehn’s advice: When cutting the grass, remove children from the equation entirely.
“The most important thing is to keep the children inside, in a separate location,” she said. “Children can move so quickly.”
The Consumer Product Safety Commission set mandatory safety standards in 1979 for push mowers but not for riding mowers.
Thirty-five years later, riding mowers still aren’t subject to mandatory standards, even though manufacturers and federal regulators have known about the danger of back-over accidents for years.
In 2003, the outdoor power equipment industry adopted voluntary standards that called for all riding mowers to include a no-mow-in-reverse feature. Now all riding mowers automatically shut off the blades when moving in reverse, unless the operator pushes an override button.
“It’s really been a lifesaving standards improvement,” commission spokesman Scott Wolfson said.
He said there’s no evidence the voluntary standards aren’t working.
But the placement of the override button makes it too easy to disable the no-mow-in-reverse safety feature, Sawchuk said.
On every ride-on model he reviewed this year, he said, the button to disable the no-mow-in-reverse feature was on the dashboard in front of the driver.
“You just press a button, and it’s overridden, and if you’re doing it a lot in a hurry, it becomes (second nature),” he said.
A much safer design would be to place the override button behind the driver, Sawchuk said, so that anyone operating the mower would be forced to turn around and look behind the machine before mowing in reverse.
He said the back-mounted switch option isn’t popular with consumers or salespeople because it’s less convenient.
Most back-over accidents occur with older mowers that were manufactured before no-mow-in-reverse safety features became standard in the industry, said Grady Chandler, a personal injury lawyer in Garland, Texas, who specializes in mowing accidents.
But like Sawchuk, Chandler thinks the safety features on newer mowers aren’t as effective as they could be because they’re too easy to disable or override.
“You should never have a safety feature that is easier to turn off than it is to use,” Chandler said.
Until safety standards for riding mowers improve or become mandatory, amputation injuries like Truett’s won’t be as rare as they should be, he said.
“It’s not a freak accident,” Chandler said. “It doesn’t happen as often as it used to, but it still happens.”
Chandler’s firm has handled three lawsuits involving children who lost limbs from mowers in Kansas City.
Manufacturers of riding mowers considered putting the override button behind the driver, but research shows it’s actually safer to put it on the dashboard, said Roger Shirk, a manager for riding lawn equipment engineering at John Deere.
“If you put the button behind you, you’re going to be looking for the button and not at the environment behind you,” he said. “We’ve done extensive studies to try to optimize this system and make it as safe as possible. We believe we have optimal placement for that button.”
Some customers don’t like having to press a button or pull a switch to mow in reverse, and the Internet is rife with do-it-yourself instructions and videos to disable or bypass the system.
Shirk said John Deere warns customers against tampering with their mowers and tries to make it hard to do so.
In the end, he said, even the most cutting-edge technology can’t make a mower 100 percent safe or tamper-proof.
“It inherently has some hazards (because) you have rotating blades,” he said. “Right now we have not found a system that we think is safer.”
Mowing safety tips
Children should never be passengers on ride-on mowers.
Always wear sturdy shoes — not sandals — while mowing.
Young children should be at a safe distance from the area being mowed.
Pick up stones, toys and debris from the lawn to prevent injuries from flying objects.
Never pull backward or mow in reverse unless absolutely necessary, and carefully look for others behind you when you do.
Source: American Academy of Pediatrics
Help for the Shackletts
Individuals, churches and small businesses have been donating money and materials toward the installation of a walkway and ramp at the Shacklett home.
Those wishing to contribute to this project or defray future medical bills can go to the “Team Truett” link on Cedar Ridge Christian Church’s website at www.cedarridge.cc.