Last year I went to Charleston, West Virginia doing research for a book I was writing. I noticed that Charleston’s residents, for the most part, enjoyed riding on ATVs. Nearly every resident I spoke with owned one. But the biggest news that weekend was a terrible tragedy: two people were killed in an ATV crash when they were struck by a vehicle. ATVs, or all-terrain vehicles, are four wheeled vehicles used for outdoor activities. (There are three-wheeled versions, but those were banned in the 80s). They’re usually viewed as recreational, for things like off-roading or hunting, but many people use them for work as well. Farmers have found them to be a great substitute for horses and trucks—and they’re a lot faster than traveling on foot. Over the years, ATVs have become bigger and faster. Some ATVs can go up to 80 mph; they might weigh as much as 500 pounds.
Of course, the change in size and speed has led to a dramatic rise in ATV injuries. Handling a vehicle of this size requires at least some skill, which younger drivers usually don’t have. Experts say that drivers under age 15 are twice as likely to lose control of the vehicle—no surprise there. The crash in West Virginia happened because a car ran into the two riders, but most ATV deaths occur because the vehicle hits something or overturns. Nationwide, in 2004 136,000 people were treated for injuries due to ATV crashes. In some states there are no helmet laws, except if you’re riding on state property you’re required to wear a helmet. Some ATV shop owners like Polaris say that Polaris will pay for a safety class—but that’s not required, so a lot of people opt out of the class. That’s unfortunate; you could learn a lot from a certified instructor. Riders need to practice in a large, hazard-free area before moving to an off-road situation, and most agree it’s important to limit your riding time until you’re accustomed to the vehicle; it’s a physically demanding sport.
When riding, it’s important to wear clothing that is appropriate for trails as well as protection in cash you crash or simply fall off a helmet, boots, long-sleeved shirt, and jeans. If your helmet has an open face, consider mouth protection and eyewear. Some riders also like to use knuckle-padded gloves. Don’t double up on one that’s not intended for two riders; some are made specifically for that purpose. It is also important for riders to follow the age-appropriate guidelines: 50cc for ages 6 and up, 90cc for ages 12 and up, and anything over 90 is for age 16 and up.
ATV use has grown over 700 percent over the past three decades—but the injury rate has grown more than 1200 percent. Riders need to follow basic safety rules. In order to better control an ATV, the rider should keep both hands on the handlebars, use straight posture, and keep both feet on the footrest. Scanning ahead where you’re going to travel helps avoid hazards, as does slowing for turns, hills, and slopes. ATVs should never be ridden on paved roads, and never when you’re drinking. Some studies show that 30 percent of deaths on ATVs occur after the driver has been drinking.
Be careful out there!