How dangerous is off-roading?

By: Jacob Silverman
Motocross and other extreme off-road sports have high rates of injuries and hospitalization. Some of the riders trying to executive this seat-grab trick probably make up those stats. See more off-roading pictures.

Some people associate off-roading -- whether on ATVs, SUVs or dirt bikes -- with oppressive engine noise and possible environmental degradation; for others, it's a favored way to explore the outdoors. But off-roading can be dangerous, although it depends on various factors, including the environment, the equipment being used and the way you drive.

For example, the sport of motocross, while more popular than ever, is notoriously dangerous for both amateur and professional riders. The sport uses off-road motorcycles on dirt tracks, ramps and other equipment designed to produce spectacular leaps and stunts. It's also synonymous with death-defying crashes and broken bones because riders often try to pull off flips, long-distance jumps and other risky maneuvers -- and they don't always succeed.


The pros aren't the only ones injuring themselves. From 2001 through 2004, an average of 23,800 people suffered motocross-related injuries each year -- and that's for people 19 years old and younger [source: CDC]. Superstar rider Travis Pastrana has become equally well known for his spectacular riding as for the litany of serious injuries he's sustained, including a dislocated spinal column (which is often fatal), concussions and dozens of broken bones.

You don't have to be a daredevil to put yourself in harm's way while off-roading, whether on a dirt bike or otherwise. Wearing a helmet or just a seatbelt if you're in an off-roading SUV can lead to a false sense of security.

One of the biggest problems may be that both development and the effort to crack down on unauthorized off-roading has pushed some riders to seek out more remote, and likely more dangerous, areas. Consequently, there's rising concern about riders, especially those on dirt bikes or ATVs, fleeing police officers who would ticket them for riding in prohibited areas [source: Russell].

Law enforcement officials point to another misperception: the marketing of off-road motorcycles and ATVs as toys, suitable for children or those without proper training [source: Russell]. Some are designed specifically for children, but even these vehicles can go up to 30 miles per hour (48 kilometers per hour) and weigh up to 300 pounds (136 kilograms) [source: Russell].

A 1987 study by Canadian researchers found that around half of victims of off-road accidents were younger than 16 years old [source: Hasselback and Wilding]. Today, under-16 ATV riders make up about 27 percent of all injuries and 20 percent of all deaths [source:].

So off-roading can be quite dangerous. But it's also a potentially fun and safe activity enjoyed by millions. On the next page, let's look at how to stay safe while off-roading.


Off-roading Safety Tips

Automakers design crash-test facilities, like this General Motors one, specifically to study the problem of rollover.
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

One of the biggest concerns associated with off-roading is rollover. Practically all off-roading vehicles, from SUVs to ATVs, can roll over, and driving on unstable, off-road terrain only increases that chance.

In 2006, approximately 146,600 people visited an emergency room for ATV-related injuries, and an estimated 882 ATV riders died [source:]. The numbers, unfortunately, are going up. For instance, in 2001, an estimated 100,000 to 110,000 ATV-related injuries occurred [sources: New York Times,].


Be careful, then, of vehicles that don't quite fit the ATV mold, such as the Yamaha Rhino, a golf-cartlike utility terrain vehicle that was recalled in March 2009 after being linked to 46 deaths [source: BBC News]. Such vehicles sometimes don't have the necessary safety features that often accompany ATVs. Better yet, habitually check in with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission or for information about the latest recalls applicable to off-roading.

In motocross, some promoters have managed to make their tracks safer by modifying jumps and using more "flaggers," who signal other riders when a competitor has fallen down. Casual motocross riders also can make their off-roading safer in various ways. First, wear a helmet and other protective gear, such as goggles, knee and elbow pads, gloves, pants and boots. The helmet shouldn't be a basic bicycle helmet either; rather it should be certified by the Department of Transportation. Depending on where you live, wearing a helmet may be required by state law.

Second, on ATVs (and dirt bikes for that matter), make sure to ride alone -- that is, one person per vehicle. It's good to have other people around in case an accident occurs, but many ATVs aren't equipped to handle more than one passenger. Adding a passenger may limit the vehicle's handling ability and the driver's range of movement.

Third, ride off-road. ATVs are actually more dangerous and less stable when on paved roads.

Fourth, take a safety course through the ATV Safety Institute, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation or one of the numerous state and local organizations scattered throughout the United States. An ATV safety or training class can teach you how to ride in different environments and how to handle your vehicle properly. You'll also learn about your vehicle's limitations.

If you're driving a four-wheel drive SUV, your vehicle is probably designed to go off-road, but that doesn't mean that you're the star of a James Bond film. Drive slowly and watch for unstable, uneven or debris-strewn terrain. An SUV's high center-of-gravity works well for off-road driving, but it also means that the vehicle is more prone to rollovers.

For more information about off-roading and vehicle safety, explore the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • "National Statistics." Dec. 31, 2007.
  • BBC News. "Vehicles recalled after 46 deaths." March 31, 2009.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Nonfatal Injuries From Off-Road Motorcycle Riding Among Children and Teens -- United States 2001-2004." MMWR 2006.
  • Hasselback, P and Wilding, H.R. "Accidents involving off-road motor vehicles in a northern community." Department of Epidemiology and Community Medicine. University of Ottawa. Oct. 1, 1987.
  • Healey, James R. "FJ Cruiser a delightful off-road machine." USA Today. Sept. 22, 2009.
  • New York Times. "A Motor Sport Takes Off, Leaving a Trail of Broken Bones." Sept. 2, 2002.
  • New York Times. "Report Cites Danger in Off-Road Vehicle." Aug. 21, 2002.
  • Russell, Jenna. "Off-road warriors." Boston Globe. May 9, 2009.
  • Trottman, Melanie and Conkey, Christopher. "U.S. Probes Off-Road Vehicles After a String of Accidents." Wall Street Journal. Nov. 4, 2008.
  • U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. "ATV Safety Messages."
  • U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. "Take a Hands-On Safety Training Course."