Off-Highway Vehicles

Ride Safe This Summer: Follow These ATV Safety Tips

By Gerene Denning, PhD, Research Scientist, Emergency Medicine, University of Iowa

Summers are a time for family fun, but for some activities, summer is a time when the most tragedies occur. Being aware of the risks of summertime activities and practicing safety is a way to protect the ones we love.

Riding all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), also known as 4-wheelers, is a popular summertime activity for amateurs and enthusiasts alike. Whether you’re an experienced ATV rider or a novice, there are some important safety tips to keep in mind every time you ride. If you’re a parent considering allowing your child to ride an ATV, make sure they know and follow these tips to keep them safe.

Our partners at Prevent Child Injury have recently issued an important ATV safety toolkit aimed specifically at helping parents learn about the risks of children using ATVs. Using the toolkit and the tips below can reduce the chances of a crash, ensuring all riders have a safe and healthy summer.

Know the Risks

ATV models made for adults can weigh hundreds of pounds and can travel at dangerously high speeds. Handling them requires considerable strength and good reflexes and the ability to make decisions in a split second. Unfortunately with ATVs, one wrong choice can lead to a trip to the emergency room or worse.

Children who are less than 16 years old don’t have the strength and maturity to handle adult-size ATVs. Youth-model ATVs are available but they can also pose risks and can go at speeds children can’t handle. Unlike a car, there are no seat belts or doors, so one bounce on rough terrain can throw a driver off the ATV or cause the ATV to roll over, crushing the driver underneath.

There is another group of off-highway vehicles (OHVs) called side-by-sides that include higher speed recreational off-highway vehicles (ROVs) and lower speed utility task vehicles (UTVs). All of these vehicles are made for multiple riders and have a steering wheel and foot brakes. ROVs have a rollover protection structure (ROPS) and seat belts. These vehicles can easily rollover on inclines and during turns. Unbelted riders can be thrown from the vehicle with terrible results.

The Deadly Summer Months

Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and its OHV Safety Coalition have been documenting OHV deaths since 2013. Using media reports and government data, the Coalition compiles and documents information on fatalities, and makes its findings publicly available.

From 2013 through 2017, CFA has documented over 3,000 ATV deaths, and July was the month with the most fatalities, more than 400. In fact, the day with the highest number of ATV fatalities is July 4th. August and May follow as the second and third most dangerous months for OHV riders.

Kids and ATVs: Is It Worth the Risk?

Kids—including teens—are not small adults. Their brains haven’t fully formed yet, so they make lots of mistakes. They can’t always accurately judge the risk they are in or what they need to do to keep themselves or others safe, especially on powerful machines. Children are also often tempted to push the limits of what they know is allowed and frequently have trouble controlling impulses.

This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children and teens younger than 16 years of age should not be on ATVs.

This isn’t just crying wolf: on average, 79 children younger than 16 are killed using ATVs every year. Tens of thousands of children are injured severely enough to be seen in the emergency room, meaning these kids are suffering more than just bumps and bruises.

Rules to Ride By

Right Size Vehicle: Never let kids 15 years old and younger operate ATVs, ROVs, and UTVs.

Drive with Caution: Mistakes happen, and on ATVs, they happen fast. If they are operating youth OHVs, choose a model recommended for your child’s age and make sure they know and follow all other safety rules.

Off-Road Only: Only ride ATVs and operate other OHVs off the road, never on public roads of any type.

Keep Count: Never allow more people on or in an OHV than it was designed to carry. Most ATVs are designed for a single rider (no passengers). ROVs should only have as many riders as seat belts can secure.

Safety Gear Protects: Always wear a helmet certified by the Department of Transportation, ANSI, or the Snell Foundation when riding on an ATV.  For ATVs, other protective clothing is strongly advised, such as boots, gloves, goggles, and long pants and sleeves. Always wear a helmet in UTVs if they don’t have a ROPS and seat belts, and helmets are still a good idea when riding in ROVs. Always use safety belts when available in the vehicle. Never operate any OHV under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Don’t ride after dark, even if the vehicle has lights, because it’s really hard to see terrain features that could cause a crash. Keep speeds low.

Start Off Right: Enroll yourself and your child in a hands-on training course.

Setting the Example: Parents should set and enforce the safety rules. The easiest way to ensure the rules are followed is to supervise children and teens allowed to operate ATVs (but not on the same vehicle). Setting a good example by following the rules is the best way parents can teach safety to their children.

As an adult rider, you want to avoid a crash and be protected if you can’t. As a parent, you want to protect your kids and yourself, best done by recognizing the risks and doing everything possible to prevent family fun from turning into a heartbreak that never ends.