How ATV Safety Works

By: Robert Lamb
Driving outdoors for an adventurous speed experience.
Dangerous ATV usage? You're soaking in it. See more off-roading pictures.
Tim Klein/Digital Vision/Getty Images

On June 6, 2006, a Nevada man crashed his all-terrain vehicle (ATV) through a barbed wire fence during a nighttime drive along the freeway. The vehicle broke through the three lower lines of wire. There was even enough momentum to carry the driver another 50 feet (15 meters) -- sans his head. The topmost strand of barbed wire caught the man's neck and decapitated him instantly.

Fast-forward a few years to July 11, 2008. A pair of off-road enthusiasts were enjoying an ATV ride through Utah's American Fork Canyon when they suddenly rounded a corner on a fallen tree. The impact drove a 4-inch (10.6-centimeter) diameter branch through the vehicle and into the driver's stomach. The vehicle only slammed to a halt when the branch struck the back of her rib cage.


While these incidents stand apart as some of the more graphic and sensational examples of ATV-related injuries, both are but a part of a much larger picture. In 2006, the Nevada decapitation was just one of an estimated 882 ATV accident deaths in the United States alone [source:]. Fortunately, the victim of the 2008 impalement incident survived, but her emergency room-treated injury counted as one of an estimated 150,900 emergency room injuries stemming from ATV-related accidents [source:].

ATVs are not toys, and even safe, responsible usage comes with its share of risks. But you don't have to shake hands with danger every time you gas up for a drive through the wilderness. In this article, we'll blaze through the basics behind safe ATV operation, along with the safety equipment and courses that can help lower the risks of grievous, off-road injury.


Safely Operating an ATV

ATV safety
When used responsibly, all-terrain vehicles provide an excellent means of exploring the great outdoors.
Nick Koudis/Photodisc/Getty Images

ATV owners use their vehicles for varying tasks, from deer hunting and landscaping to simply enjoying the great outdoors. We plowed through some troubling statistics and rather grisly examples on the previous page, but the good news is that, with a little common sense, ATVs can carry you wherever you need to go without unreasonable risk of injury.

The first thing to keep in mind is that ATVs frequently weigh in the neighborhood of 700 pounds (318 kilograms) and can reach maximum speeds of more than 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour). In addition to providing enough momentum to break the human body against any number of natural and man-made obstacles, that kind of weight makes a roll or a flip a potentially bone-breaking affair. In other words, never treat an ATV like a toy.


The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends the following guidelines for ATV safety:

  • Don't allow children to drive or ride adult ATVs: It's worth stressing again that ATVs are not toys. As such, appropriately aged children should only be permitted to use youth ATVs, and larger models should remain the exclusive domain of adults.
  • Don't drive ATVs on paved roads: Most ATVs are designed with unpaved roads and rough terrains in mind. Just as you might have trouble driving your Toyota Corolla on the beach, ATVS can prove difficult to control on paved roads. Factor in potential collisions with automobiles and you have a recipe for disaster.
  • No passengers: Sure, it might look fun to double up on a rocky ride through the woods, but the majority of ATVs are designed with only one user in mind. Most important, proper control of an ATV involves interactive riding. This means that drivers need to be able to shift their weight in any direction to help maintain control of the vehicle.
  • Don't drive under the influence: It should go without saying, but operating an ATV while under the influence of drugs or alcohol is a horrible idea. If you do find yourself hammered, stoned, wasted or bombed and absolutely require a little four-wheeler action, then please consider any of the numerous quad-racing video games on the market as a safe alternative.

The two additional recommendations provided by the CPSC revolve around proper safety gear and the use of a hands-on safety training course. We'll explore both of these on the following pages.


ATV Safety Gear

ATV Safety
Don’t worry. You're not going to look anywhere near this ridiculous decked out in a little ATV safety gear.
Elsa/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

You might be the safest ATV driver for miles around, but without proper safety gear, you're never more than one chance flip, roll, collision or low-hanging limb away from a trip to the emergency room. To minimize the risk, both the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the ATV Safety Institute recommend strapping on a few potentially lifesaving accessories.

As with motorcyclists, ATV enthusiasts are generally advised (and, in some places, required by law) to wear a helmet. And no, this doesn't mean that spiked Prussian army helmet you've been eying on eBay. You'll want some protective headgear certified by the U.S. Department of Transportation and/or the Snell Memorial Foundation. (In case you haven't heard of it, the Snell Memorial Foundation is a not-for-profit group that focuses on helmet safety standards. It has been around since 1957.) Should you find yourself thrown from your vehicle or about to make friends with a low-hanging limb, your brain will thank you.


In addition to wearing a helmet, the CSPC recommends gloves, long pants, long sleeves, over-the-ankle boots and a pair of goggles or a face shield to protect the eyes against dust and tire-thrown rocks. A number of additional protective garments, including kneepads, chest protectors and protective suits are also available.

Helmets, the most expensive part of the attire, typically run between$30 and $75, but you can spend hundreds of dollars if you're particularly choosy. As with other ATV safety accessories, you can buy them from ATV dealers and various outdoor stores.

On the next page, we'll look at how AVT safety courses work.


ATV Safety Courses

ATV Safety
An ATV safety instructor guides students through a course in Burnsville, Minn. The class, offered by the national ATV Safety Institute, and funded by ATV manufacturers, offered $100 to ATV owners who completed it.
AP Photo/Janet Hostetter

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the ATV Safety Institute and various ATV manufacturers all recommend that new ATV owners invest in a hands-on safety training class before they take to the hills in their new ride. The off-road environment holds many challenges for new drivers and a simple one-day, 3-4 hour course can substantially improve driver safety. Just think of it as drivers' ed for ATVs.

ATV safety courses cover basic vehicle safety and driving skills, typically at multiple stations on a closed, outdoor track (though the AVT Safety Institute does offer an online class, consisting of Web-based videos and quizzes).


Safety programs are widely available in most areas. They're offered by the ATV Safety Institute, local ATV rider groups and various departments at the state level. The National 4-H Council also sponsors ATV safety seminars for children and teens. Depending on the program, you might have to provide your own vehicle.

You can typically expect to pay between $50 and $150 for an ATV safety class. Prices vary depending on availability and driver age, but you might not have to pay anything at all. ATV manufacturers and distributors who are members of the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America (SVIA) offer free training, as well as rebates and other incentives  to buyers who complete the ATV Safety Institute training course.

Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about all-terrain vehicles.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • ATV Safety.Gov. (Nov. 10, 2009)
  • ATV Safety Institute. (Nov. 10, 2009)
  • Norton, F.T. "Man strikes wires, is killed on ATV while driving at night." June 9, 2006. (Nov. 10, 2009)
  • Yeates, Ed. "Woman impaled in freak accident shares her story." July 22, 2008. (Nov. 10, 2009)