WASILLA — Teagen Tanner wasn’t wearing a helmet when she nearly died in a four-wheeler accident that landed her in intensive care for two weeks in 2015.
Tanner and a friend, on a trip to Homer, jumped in a side-by-side to pick up some ketchup at a nearby campsite. The ATV was only going about 7 mph when it rolled. Tanner ended up with a brain injury and nearly half her scalp torn off.
As she recovered, facing what would be a year of multiple surgeries and lengthy rehab, Tanner said she “started to get into a really dark place” and had to make the choice to pull up.
She told herself, “I’m starting a charity to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
Today, Helmets On Heads — the nonprofit Tanner founded that year — has given away 875 ATV, motorcycle, bicycle and equestrian helmets across Alaska, from Northway to Naknek, as well as Anchorage, Mat-Su, the Kenai Peninsula and Fairbanks. The group goes to schools and community events, and also distributes gear to individuals and families in Wasilla.
Nurses in Naknek asked for the helmets, Tanner said. Everybody in that Bristol Bay community uses four-wheelers to get around and there are limited medical resources to respond to emergencies.
Much of the group’s outreach targets younger people, but they’re available to anyone who needs them, Tanner said during a recent interview at her home near Wasilla. A bright red trailer held 65 bike and ATV helmets ranging in size from XS youth to XXXL adult.
An average ATV helmet retails for about $160, Tanner said. She gets most of the nonprofit’s supplies for half price from Bell Helmets. Much of the group’s funding comes from donations, sponsors or grants.
Parents can also learn safety lessons if their children start wearing helmets, she said. “It becomes a generational ripple effect.”
Alaskans use all-terrain vehicles for everything, from fun rides and quick runs to the store to full-on transportation. They don’t always wear helmets.
Alaska has one of the highest rates of people experiencing traumatic brain injuries in the nation, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
From 2012 to 2016, about one out of every five reported injuries in Alaska included a brain injury, according to an analysis done by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The analysis found ATV and snowmachine crashes are among the leading causes of traumatic brain injuries in Alaska, along with falls, other motor vehicle crashes and assault.
In 2019, the Alaska Native Medical Center reported an increase in head injuries — many involving people not wearing helmets on ATVs.
Tanner said she expects to be especially busy giving away helmets in the coming weeks, with the nonprofit’s return to events put off by the pandemic, but also with hot weather in the forecast. She said Helmets On Heads is talking about updating their educational materials to reflect a statewide rule change that allows ATVs on public roadways provided the speed limit is 45 mph or lower.
A number of communities already banned four-wheelers on roads or opted out last year, citing safety concerns including those raised by transportation experts, local police and firefighters. Cities that prohibit ATVs on roads include Anchorage, Palmer, Wasilla, Fairbanks, Homer, Valdez, Juneau, Kenai and Soldotna.
In areas where riding on roads is legal now, the new rule comes with new requirements including working headlights, brake lights and helmets for passengers.
“We want to create some more education around that, so we can be not just a resource for safety but stay current on regulations,” Tanner said.
Now 29, she works as director of events for Kristan Cole Team and bears the scar from her 2015 accident. It curves from her hairline and continues nearly to her right ear. She still gets therapy for her traumatic brain injury and deals with some lingering memory issues and light sensitivity.
With a family’s permission, Tanner will show children the grisly photos taken in the aftermath of her accident and tell them how slow the machine was going — and how fast things can go terribly wrong.
She finally got back on a side-by-side last year.
“I’m pretty solid now,” Tanner said before loading up her Toyota RAV4 for a trip into Wasilla to meet three families who requested helmets. “I’m very, very blessed that not only I made it, but I get to share my story with others and help them stay safe.”
For more information, email HelmetOnHeads@gmail.com or go to the group’s Facebook page.