All-terrain vehicles, or ATVs, have become popular with old and young alike. They’re fast and fun, but these quad and four-wheelers aren’t “all” that safe.
ATV accidents typically cause more than 100,000 ER visits and 700 deaths each year. And nearly 20% of these deaths are children under the age of 16.
“There is a common misperception that ATVs and other off-highway vehicles are safe because they have four wheels,” said Jasjot Johar, MD, medical director of the emergency department at Banner McKee Medical Center in Loveland, CO. “Unfortunately, that misperception has led people to believe that training isn’t required or that other safety rules don’t apply.”
The dangers of ATVs
While rollover ATV accidents are common and can cause severe injury, ejection (being thrown off) from the vehicle occurs frequently as well.
“Sudden stops, sharp turns, uneven terrain, excess speed and simply overestimating your skill level can cause a driver or passenger to be thrown from their vehicle,” Dr. Johar said. “However, rollover accidents, especially where the ATV rolls over or lands on top of the driver or passenger, can be devastating and unfortunately aren’t uncommon.”
You can’t prevent all accidents from occurring, but you can arm yourself and your family with safety ideas so you can make good choices. Dr. Johar shared some simple steps to make sure that riding an ATV is both safe and fun.
1. Get safety certified
Take a safety training course just like you would to operate a car on the road.
“Understanding safe speed, safe terrain, the importance of helmets and other less obvious safety measures specific to ATVs can make safe enjoyment of these vehicles possible,” Dr. Johar said. “It’s important that drivers understand how these vehicles will respond in different conditions, terrains and speeds.”
The ATV Institute offers rider courses at locations across the country. You can also ask your local ATV retailer for recommendations on classes.
2. Ride an ATV that’s right for your age and size
“ATVs come in various sizes depending on the age and size of the driver and riding an ATV that is right for your size and age is important,” Dr. Johar said.
Full-size ATVs can weigh more than 600 pounds and be hard to handle. There are ATVs designed for your specific age group.
You might notice there are a few ATVs out there for kids, but health and safety experts like the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly discourage their use by anyone younger than age 16.
People under age 16 are less likely to have the physical strength and decision-making skills necessary to drive an ATV safely.
“Most ATVs aren’t designed for kids or younger children. And since ATVs are meant to have one driver per seat, children definitely shouldn’t ride with an adult either,” Dr. Johar said. “Unless the ATV was designed to safely hold another passenger, ride alone.”
3. Wear a helmet and protective gear
ATV riders, no matter your age, should always wear a helmet, protective goggles, boots, gloves and padded and/or leather clothing.
“There is no way to overemphasize the importance of wearing a helmet for almost any sport, but especially riding an ATV where ejection from the vehicle or rollover injuries are more frequent,” Dr. Johar said. “Even at lower speeds or off-highway terrain, the impact to the head can be devastating at any age.”
Purchase a helmet that uses a face shield and meets the Department of Transportation safety standards. Many helmets have a flip-down visor to protect your eyes. If your helmet doesn’t, purchase shatterproof goggles. “Whether it’s rocks or dirt kicked up by another vehicle, trees or branches, bug or other debris, getting something in your eye while driving an ATV can be extremely serious,” Dr. Johar said.
While most educated motorcycle riders understand the importance of protective gear, some ATV riders tend to discount the necessity of such safety equipment. Dr. Johar often sees a lot of road rash, lacerations and abrasions and other preventable injuries. “However, no protective gear will keep you from broken bones or a spinal cord injury,” he said. “We always say the most important piece of protective equipment is your brain.”
4. Stay on the path or trail
Drive only on designated trails and at a safe speed. It may be tempting to zip across a highway, road or sidewalk, but ATVs were designed for rural driving – not flat pavement. Even the most experienced driver could lose control on smooth surfaces. In addition, riding on the highway or street can increase your risk for an accident with a non-ATV vehicle.
“While there are some ATVs that are specifically designed to be used on paved roads or with multiple people, most are off-road, single passenger vehicles,” Dr. Johar said. “Their suspension and handling are designed for those situations. Using an ATV on a paved road compromises the design and safety.”
5. Drive safely
Here are some additional tips to keep you safe on the trails:
- Don’t drive in the dark or other situations where there could be poor visibility of surroundings.
- Never operate any motor vehicle while using drugs or alcohol.
- Don’t text or look at your phone while driving.
Riding trails on an all-terrain vehicle can be fun, but just remember it’s not a toy. With the thrills, there can also be some big risks. If you’re going to ride an ATV, know how to safely use it, follow all safety tips and help prevent serious or life-threatening injuries.