We all know that ATV riding is not risk-free. But luckily, there is a lot you can do to reduce the risk of getting involved in an accident significantly.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s annual report, there are around 650 deaths and 100.000 ATV-related injuries each year.
We want to do our part to lower these numbers. So here are ten tips that every rider should know for being better able to prevent AVT accidents.
Related: Safety Tips: 17 Things Not to Do With an ATV
1. Understand that riding an ATV is not like riding a car
Cars can be safely maneuvered without almost any physical effort or bodily movement from the driver. ATVs, on the other hand, cannot.
To safely operate an ATV, you must learn how to utilize your body’s weight to remain in control of the machine. You need to constantly shift your body weight to account for sharp turns, steep hills, and rough terrain.
Many 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.
Learning safe handling in various riding situations takes a lot of practice. Start slow and work your way up gradually as you learn and gain riding experience.
In this post about why ATVs have thumb throttles instead of twist throttles, we discuss some of the most important differences between riding a motorcycle and riding an ATV.
2. Don’t ride on hills that are too steep
Many ATV accidents happen when the rider takes on steeper hills than the bike can safely handle. ATVs have a relatively short wheelbase as well as narrow wheel spacing.
Also, they have a relatively high center of gravity with the rider on top. These two factors combined make for a machine that will tip over sooner than some riders expect.
ATVs are designed the way they are to fit between trees or rocks when riding off-road while at the same time keeping them easy to maneuver on rough surfaces.
They could be made wider, longer, and lower to increase stability, but that would defy some of an all-terrain vehicle’s purpose. It would no longer be “all-terrain” but more of a “sloped terrain vehicle.”
Here are a few tips for riding safely in hills:
- Inexperienced riders should begin by riding a low-angle hill to gain experience before gradually attempting steeper ones. Do not, in any case, ride steeper than recommended by the manufacturer. No written advice can replace the experience you gain from practice and learning how to feel how the bike behaves on various hill types and angles.
- When you attempt 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 wear a helmet
Head injuries are by far the biggest cause of death or disabling trauma in ATV accidents.
But wearing a helmet is such a hassle, I hear some say, especially when doing utility work and riding at low speeds. They are sweaty and block your sight, and you only need them when riding at high speeds, right? Wrong!
The truth is that a big portion of severe ATV-related head injuries happens at low speeds. You never know if or when you may lose control of your bike.
Let me tell you about an ATV accident that nearly cost my father’s 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 cargo rack of his Honda Foreman and attempted to go up this steep and bumpy hill.
Halfway up the hill, he lost traction. When the spinning wheels regained their traction, the back-heavy ATV flipped backward and landed on top of him.
By pure luck, he only broke four ribs. The doctor told him that if his head had been where his chest was, he would likely not have made it.
He made three crucial mistakes:
- He attempted a challenge not fit for his level of experience (riding a hill that was too steep).
- He did not wear a helmet.
- He did not balance his cargo properly.
Wearing a helmet reduces the risk of head injury by about 85%. Both ATV/MX helmets and motorcycle helmets will work 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/MX helmet, wear suitable goggles. If you choose to use a motorcycle helmet, it will have a full face visor to protect your eyesight.
- 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
By now, we have 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 front and rear cargo racks.
He put all of his cargo on the rear rack and none on the front. Also, the weight of the cargo exceeded the rated capacity of the rack. Read this post about how much ATVs can safely carry.
He should have split up the load 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, stick to the relative weight distribution recommended by the manufacturer. Usually, about one-third of the weight should be 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).
You must know that ATVs are not really designed to ride on paved roads.
The short wheelbase and narrow wheel stance make them prone to 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 of 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 never ride full-size ATVs
I know that some adults will not agree with me on this one. They claim the kids will handle the bike just fine, they learn so quickly, and it will just 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 or killed by riding machines that are too big and too powerful for them to handle.
An ATV with power steering and automatic CVT transmission is relatively easy to operate under typical riding situations. But when things go wrong, a child may not have adequate body weight or strength to keep control of the machine.
Panic strikes and things may go really bad, really fast. Kids’ brains are not developed 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 and the same should apply to ATVs.
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 has a built-in digital speed- and /or power limiter.
This helps prevent typical beginner-related accidents where a rider is not yet accustomed to the power of the ATV panics and gives 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 for 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 machine’s limits 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 accidents.
- Worn brake pads or brake disks must be replaced to ensure adequate stopping power.
- The tires must have at least 1/2 inch of the 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 believe that it is OK to bring a passenger on their ATV. There is plenty of room for both to sit comfortably, right?
While ATVs do have large seats, that is not for you to 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 accelerating.
Holding on to the rider is not enough. Not all passengers have the necessary arm strength and focus on holding on, especially children.