As you probably know, ATV riding is not risk-free. Luckily, there is a lot you can do to significantly reduce the risk of getting involved in an accident.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission annual report, there are around 650 deaths and 100.000 ATV related injuries each year. Here are ten quick tips that will help you better avoid ATV accidents.
1. Understand that an ATV is not a car
Riding an ATV is not like riding a car where you can maneuver the vehicle just by turning the steering wheel. Also, there are no seat and seat belts there to hold you in place.
When riding an ATV, you must know how to utilize the weight of your body to keep control of the bike. ATV riding is closer to riding a motorcycle than driving a car, but there are still a few key differences in how you should operate them. That’s mainly because one has four wheels, while the other has just two.
In this post about why ATVs have thumb throttles instead of twist throttles, I cover some of the key differences between riding a motorcycle and riding an ATV.
A lot of ATV accidents happen because beginners underestimate the power and acceleration, as well as the physical strength required to hang on to the handlebar during hard acceleration or turning.
Start slow and work your way up gradually as you learn and gain riding experience.
2. Don’t ride in hills that are too steep
Many ATV accidents happen due to tipping when riding in hills that are steeper than the bike can handle.
ATVs has a relatively short wheelbase as well as narrow wheel spacing. Combine this with a relatively high center of gravity, and you have a ride that does require some experience for it to be handled safely in hills.
They are designed this way to fit between trees or rocks when riding off-road, and at the same time keeping them easy to maneuver on rough surfaces.
Off course, they could make them wider, longer and lower so that they would be more stable when riding in hills, but that would defy some of the purposes of an all-terrain vehicle. It would no longer be “all-terrain” but just a “sloped terrain vehicle”.
Here are a few tips for riding safely in hills:
- If you are an inexperienced rider, start with hills that are not so steep and work your way up to the steeper ones. You need to practice by increasing the difficulty gradually.
Nothing I write in this post can replace practice and learning to feel how the bike behaves on various hill types and angles.
- When you do try a steeper hill, stand up and lean your body against the hill to make the bike less likely to tip.
- If you ride uphill, you will need to lean forward.
- If you ride downhill, you should lean back.
- And when you ride sideways, you must lean to the side that faces uphill.
- Never attempt riding up or down a hill that is steeper than you feel comfortable with. You rarely get a warning before the bike tips over, and when they do tip, they go fast.
I go more in-depth on how to use your body weight to keep the ATV stable in this post about why ATVs have large seats.
3. Always use a helmet
Helmets may seem like just a hassle, especially when doing utility work and riding at low speeds. They are sweaty and blocks your sight, and you only need them when riding at high speeds, right?
The truth is that a lot of severe ATV related head injuries happen when riding at low speeds. You never know if or when you will lose control of your bike.
Let me tell you about an ATV accident that nearly cost my fathers life.
The task on hand was hauling fencing material out to some hard-to-reach places on our cattle feeding grounds. My father did not have a lot of ATV riding experience at the time, but he had been riding tractors off-road all his life.
On a side-note, he is the type that tends to skip most types of safety gear, so he was not wearing a helmet.
He strapped a heavy bundle of 50 fence posts to the rear rack of his 500 Honda Foreman and attempted to go up this steep and bumpy hill.
Things were going fine, but then he lost traction halfway up. As soon as the spinning wheels regained their traction, his then back-heavy ATV flipped backward down the hill and landed on top of him.
By pure luck, he only broke four ribs. The doctor said that if his head had been where his chest was, he would likely not have made it.
That day, he made three crucial mistakes:
- He attempted a challenge not fit for his level of experience.
- He did not balance his cargo properly.
- He did not use a helmet.
I believe he learned a lot about ATV safety that day, and so did I.
Both ATV helmets and motorcycle helmets will work fine to keep you safe. Read this post to learn the difference between the two.
Other protective gears that will protect you even better against ATV accidents are:
- Eye protection to keep rocks and bugs out of your eyes. With an ATV helmet, use suitable googles. If you choose to use a motorcycle helmet, it will have a full face visor to protect your eye-sight.
- Leather boots. If you end up flipping your ATV or going off the trail, a set of relatively stiff leather boots will better protect your feet and your ankles. If you are into ATV racing, always use proper dirt-bike boots.
- Gloves with a rubber grip and proper knuckle protection.
- Long pants and a long-sleeved shirt.
4. Distribute the weight of your cargo correctly
We have now covered two of the three mistakes my dad made the day he flipped, and his ATV landed on top of him.
The last error was not distributing his cargo correctly between the two cargo racks.
He put all of his cargo on the rear rack and none on the front. Also, the cargo exceeded the rated capacity of his bikes rear cargo rack. Read this post about how much ATVs safely can carry.
What he should have done was splitting his bunt of poles and put about one-third of them on the front rack.
If the front rack cargo capacity had allowed it, he could even have put nearly half of the poles up front, since he was only going uphill. More weight to the front reduces the chance of flipping backward when going uphill.
Had he been going downhill, he would be better off by having the majority of the cargo weight placed on the rear cargo rack.
Understanding this basic principle is vital for safe cargo hauling on an ATV.
If you are a beginner, simply stick to the relative weight distribution recommended from the manufacturer. Usually about one-third of the weight on the front cargo rack, and the remaining two thirds on the rear.
5. Stay off paved roads
Nearly one-third (!) of all ATV deaths happen on paved roads or parking lots (source)
It’s important that you know that ATVs are not really designed to ride on paved roads.
The short wheelbase and narrow wheel stance make them prone for tipping when riding on high traction surfaces like asphalt and concrete. If you are not cautious, there is a risk of overturning and losing control over the bike.
While ATVs are road-legal in some states and some counties, I generally recommend that you stay off-road as much as possible. In some states, riding on-road is illegal.
6. Children under 16 should not ride full-size ATVs – ever
I know that some will not agree with me on this one. Things usually go well, they learn so quickly, and it will make them better riders in the future, right?
Well, yes, except things do not always go well. A big portion of all ATV accidents are children getting hurt from riding machines that are too big and too powerful for them to handle.
An ATV with power steering and an automatic CVT transmission is relatively easy to operate under typical riding situations. But when things go wrong, a child will often not have adequate body weight or strength to remain control of the machine.
Panic strike and things may go really bad, really fast. Kids brains are not developed far enough to properly understand the risk and consequences involved with riding a full-scale ATV.
After all, this is why they make youth ATVs. Here is my recommendation on the best ATV for 10-year-olds.
It is your responsibility as an adult to understand this risk and to explain it to your child. Get a proper size youth ATV when your child is ready for it, but never let a child ride an adult-size ATV.
You would not give your car keys to your kid, neither would you?
7. Inexperienced riders should use the learning key
Some ATV manufacturers are starting to offer bikes that come with a dedicated learning mode intended for inexperienced riders and beginners.
You basically get two different keys with your purchase. One is a standard key that gives you all of the power the machine has to offer while the other one has a built-in digital speed- and /or power limiter.
This helps prevent typical beginner related accidents where a rider that is not yet accustomed to the power of the ATV panics and give full throttle.
I hope more manufacturers will follow and offer this great feature with their bikes.
8. Take a beginners ATV safety class, or ask an experienced rider to teach you
I do not offer ATV safety courses, so this is not a salesman speaking. But I really recommend that all beginners sign up to a local ATV riding course if available. It’s incredible how much you learn in just a day with an experienced instructor.
If no courses are available close to you, the next best thing is to ask an experienced rider to teach you some of the basic operating skills and safety tips.
ATV safety has a lot to do with knowing the limits of the machine and being able to use your body to maneuver the bike properly. A lot of this can be learned from a rider that gone through this learning curve himself before.
9. Make sure your ATV is in good working order
Proper maintenance is important to prevent ATV acidents.
- Worn brake pads or brake disks must be replaced to ensure adequate stopping power.
- The tires must have at least 1/2 inch of remaining tread-pattern and should be replaced when they start cracking due to dry rot.
- Make sure there are no brake fluid leaks.
- Make sure your lights are in good working order.
- If your bike has this option, adjust your suspension according to the riding you plan on doing.
10. Do not ride with or be the passenger on a non-touring model (2-up model)
Another common cause of ATV accidents is riding two people on a one-person machine.
Some think that it is OK to bring a passenger on their ATV. There is plenty of room for both to sit comfortably, right? Yes, they have large seats, but that is not so that you can bring a passenger. Please read this post if you want to know why ATVs have large seats.
If you bring a passenger on a non-touring bike, the rider cannot move properly to maneuver the machine safely. Also, there is often no backrest to prevent the passenger from falling off when cornering or acceleration.
Holding on to the rider is not enough. Not all passengers have the necessary arm strength and focus on holding on, especially children.