Everything You Need to Know to Avoid an ATV Accident

We started ATVMan.com because we love four wheeling, but that doesn’t mean we don’t recognize the risk.  We have even been involved in some accidents, but luckily have escaped with nothing more than ripped clothes, cuts and bruises.  Because ATV’s feel stable, especially compared to a dirt bike, people often overestimate how safe they are. The truth is that overconfidence actually leads to more accidents than what is seen on dirt bikes.

While everyone is likely to experience some cuts and bruises while riding ATVs from time to time, there are some serious potential injuries that accompany ATV accidents.  The most common ATV injuries include the following:

  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Loss of limb
  • Concussions
  • Skull fractures
  • Broken ribs
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Broken arms
  • Crushed wrists
  • Injuries to internal organs
  • Cerebral contusion
  • Internal bleeding

These injuries usually occur when an ATV rolls over or flips onto the rider after a fall or when the rider is ejected from the ATV and makes impact with the ground or another object.

The first step to staying safe on an ATV is understanding the risk.  Once you appreciate the risk associated with four wheeling, there are some pretty easy steps you can take to avoid having an ATV accident.  Here are — of the best tips out there to help you avoid an ATV accident.

1. Understand the Risk.  I said above that understanding the risk is the first step.  Overconfidence causes accidents. Accidents happen because ATVs are dangerous machines.  People get hurt and people die. Some reported statistics should drive this point home.

  • The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that 13,043 ATV-related fatalities occurred between 1982 and 2013.
  • Approximately 800 people die as a direct result of ATV accidents every year in the United States.
  • Approximately 135,000 people are treated for injuries as a direct result of ATV accidents every year in the United States.
  • Approximately 14,000 people have died due to ATV-related accidents.
  • 27 percent of reported ATV injuries in 2012 were to the head or neck.  29 percent were of the arms or hands. 22 percent were to the torso area.  21 percent were to the legs or feet.

Tips to Follow during Preparation

2. Take an ATV safety course. Private and public ATV safety courses are offered in most, if not all, states.  There are a lot of important techniques you should know and skills that need developing before you can safely drive an ATV.  While ATVs seem pretty simply to use ninety percent of the time, the situations that lead to the worst accidents are often those that a casual ATV rider is simply not prepared for.  Some of the important techniques you can expect to learn during a safety course include emergency stopping, hill riding, pre-ride inspection, starting and stopping, and riding over obstacles.

3. Wear Protective Gear.  Protective gear is a big part of avoiding serious injuries when an ATV accident does occur.  Most importantly, a good helmet can save your life and avoid serious head injury. Head injuries are by far the leading cause of death and disability related to ATV accidents.  Wearing a helmet has been shown to reduce head injuries by 85 percent. Additionally, riders should also wear other protective gear including boots, gloves, and goggles to prevent other injuries that might occur.  We have our own recommendation for protective gear if you need some direction.

In addition to helping you avoid injuries, some safety gear can help you avoid accidents.  When you take a branch to the face at high speed without goggles, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to recover before crashing, even if the branch itself doesn’t cause major injury.  The same could be true a rock flipping up and hitting you in the head.

4. Wear bright and/or reflective clothing.  Many ATV accidents involve collisions with other ATVs, cars or dirt bikes.  Make it easy for people to see you with the clothes you wear.

5. Let someone know where you are riding.  When you go riding, you should tell a friend or family member where you are going and how long you expect to be gone.  If you are going on a longer outing, you should leave behind a travel plan, map of where you are going and a time schedule.

6. Have a phone with service.  If there is an accident, you will want a way to communicate and get help.  Because we often ride far from cities, it may be worth investing in a satellite phone that will get reception wherever you are at.

7. Read your manual.  I know, reading owner manuals is a drag, but it is very helpful to read manuals for most things, including ATVs, to really understand how everything works on whatever new item you buy.  Reading the manual on your ATV will ensure you more fully understand how to operate the ATV so you can more fully know how to handle unplanned-for situations.

8. Stay up to date on ATV recalls.  You should monitor your ATV manufacturer information from time to time.  Safety recalls happen with ATVs. There can also be important news released by manufacturers regarding defects with ATVs that owners should be aware of.  Some of these defects can be serious safety issues that could cause your ATV to malfunction at a time that could cause a serious accident.

9. Perform a pre-ride inspection.  You should always inspect your ATV before riding.  At a minimum, you should check the fluids, fuel, lights, tires and brake system on your ATV to make sure they are functioning reliably before riding.  You can get some more advice on inspecting your tires and brake system in our article on braking, but some quick things you should check include the following:

  • Tires.  Make sure they are not worn out, that there is not uneven wear in the treads, that the tire pressure is good and that there are not any foreign objects embedded in the tire rubber.
  • Headlights.  Make sure the headlights are functioning and not fogged over.  While you shouldn’t ride in the dark, headlights can help make you more visible at all times.
  • Chains.  The chains should be properly lubricated and not worn out or out of place.
  • Controls.  Make sure the connections and cables are intact and properly connected.  Also, make sure the gauges and other indicators are functioning and not cracked.
  • Sprockets/Gears.  Make sure there are no broken teeth and that the teeth are not encumbered by grit, mud or debris.

10. Don’t tamper with ATV parts.  Unless you are an experience ATV technician or mechanic, do not tamper with the original equipment manufacturer parts that come with your ATV.  If you want something aftermarket installed on your ATV, have an expert do it. Equipment malfunction can cause accidents.

11. Make sure you have applicable insurance.  This likely won’t help you avoid an accident, but it sure will help make the results of an accident easier to handle.  Insurance will help you deal with the financial strain of damage to your ATV, potential damage to other property and medical bills for anyone affected.

12. Keep a quality tool kit in your ATV.  While pre-ride inspection and maintenance is important, you should be prepared for a maintenance requirement that may arise while you are riding.  It is much safer to fix potential issues rather than continuing to ride an ATV that is at risk of malfunctioning.  Check out some of our favorite tools that we use.

Safety Tips for Riding

13. Maintain your balance and center of gravity.  Many ATV accidents are caused when ATVs roll over or overturn.  The key to avoiding these accidents is maintaining control of your ATV.  You do this by maintaining good balance and being aware of your center of gravity.  This is most important when you are riding on an incline, going around a turn or making a sudden stop.  All of these situations are recipes for disaster because they shift the momentum of an ATV in such a way that you need to shift the weight of your body to counteract that momentum before the ATV rolls or flips.

14. Use correct riding posture. You need to learn correct riding posture, then achieve and maintain it while riding.  Riding with correct posture will help you react more quickly and effectively in any situation that may arise while riding.  This will help you avoid an accident that would otherwise occur when a tricky situation arises.

15. Know your limits. Your limits are determined by your experience and skill.  Those limits are good. They let you know what you should be doing and what you should not be doing.  If you do not have the experience or skill to drive a steep incline or jump a log, you should not try it.  These are the situations that are most likely to lead to an accident.

16. Know your ATV’s limits.  Just like you, your ATV has limits too.  You need to learn what abilities your ATV has so you do not try to push your ATV beyond those limits.  For example, your ATV may not have the power to make it up a steep hill, which could cause it to roll backwards; your ATV may not be equipped with the equipment necessary to drive through deep water, or; your ATV may be too heavy to jump a log that is in your path.

17. Avoid distracted riding.  This one should not need much explanation, but it is a good reminder I think we often overlook.  Distractions come in all shapes and sizes. My biggest distraction is often that I am always looking over the landscape trying to find a good photo opportunity.  Other distractions might be wild animals, other riders, a pretty sunset, or onlookers.

Distractions are not always visual, but can distract your other senses too.  Riding while listening to music or a podcast can distract you from thinking about what you should be doing.  A rock in your shoe or cute girl with her hand on your leg or around your waist can also be every bit as distracting as something visual.

18. Don’t drive on paved roads. Approximately 33 percent of ATV accidents occur on paved surfaces.  ATVs are designed to be driven off road. Because they are not designed for use on smoother surfaces like paved roads, you will face more difficulty controlling an ATV, especially at high speeds, when driving on a paved road.  In addition to problems with controlling an ATV on paved roads, collisions with other vehicles pose a serious threat. You do not want to be on an ATV during an accident with a car or truck.

While it is not unusual for an ATV rider to need to cross a paved road, there are some key concerns in such a situation.  To reduce the risk of injury, follow state laws, yield to oncoming traffic, and ride carefully as the ATV will handle differently when on pavement.  Also, cross when your visibility is not blocked and cross at a 90 degree angle

19. Stick to designated ATV riding areas.  Many state and federal lands offer designated land or trails for ATV riding.  These are the safest places to ride your ATV. While trailblazing through unexplored areas or unmarked woods sounds exciting, your safest option is to stick to a designated riding trail.  Not only does this help you avoid getting lost, riding trails have been specifically cleared of many dangerous obstacles that could cause you to get into a serious accident. Also, riding trails have better visibility than wooded areas, helping to further increase safety for yourself and other riders.

Check out our comprehensive guide to riding ATVs on federal land.

atv riding

20. Don’t cross frozen water.  ATVs are heavier than they look and ice is often less stable than it looks.  Unless you live in Alaska and people are using the frozen water as a road, you should play it safe and find another route.

21. Don’t cross rivers.  Not only should you not cross frozen water, you should not cross any kind of water.  While most ATV’s are not going to have an issue with mud puddles or small streams, never try to cross water that is moving quickly or where you can’t tell the depth, or the depth is more than a few inches deep.  Not only do you risk causing damage to your ATV that could lead to later malfunction, you risk serious injury from an accident.

22. Always scan for hazards.  While you are riding, even if you are familiar with the path, you should always be scanning the path in front of you for hazards.  There may have been a tree that fell across the path or a rut created by someone during the last rain storm. Hitting an obstacle you are not ready for, or swerving to avoid something at the last second, are easy ways to cause an accident.

23. Practice in a safe environment.  Studies have shown that an ATV rider is thirteen times more likely to have an accident during their first month of ATV riding than when they are more experienced.  ATVs seem simple and easy to ride, but there are a lot of nuances that go with riding an ATV that you should get familiar with in a safe riding environment before you go out on more difficult trails.

24. Don’t drive to fast.  Never drive faster than you are comfortable with.  The speed at which you drive an ATV should be determined by your experience level, your familiarity with the area, potential hazards, surface conditions and weather.

25. Be Careful around turns.  One of the most common causes of ATV accidents is taking turns too fast.  This is particularly dangerous because a common occurrence during accidents while turning is an ATV rollover.  ATVs can be very heavy and rolling one over you can crush your head or any other part of your body, causing death or severe injury.  If you are not an experienced ATV rider that has mastered cornering techniques, it is easy to lose control, let your body weight shift incorrectly or skid into something outside the area you intended to turn.  You need to be especially careful around blind corners as you do not know what could be around the other side as you come out of sharp turn.

26. Wear a safety belt.  This is not going to be an option on most ATVs, but should be available on most UTVs.  To avoid greater injury during an accident, be smart and wear the seat belt.

27. Be cautious in new areas.  No matter how experienced or skilled of an ATV rider you may be, you should take extra caution when riding in an unfamiliar area.  Before you push your limits, you need confirm there are no unexpected obstacles on the trail and learn how sharp all the curves and how big the bumps are on the trail.

28. Don’t do tricks.  Tricks are fun for most people, but riding ATVs is not the best place to be doing tricks.  Simply put, ATVs are not designed for tricks. They are not light and aerodynamic like a dirt bike.  They don’t handle jumps well. Unless you are an experienced ATV stuntman, just don’t try it. If tricks, stunts and jumps are your thing, pick up a dirt bike or different hobby.

29. Don’t drive in the dark.  Most ATVs nowadays come equipped with a headlight, but they are not very good.  The visibility you get, even with a headlight, just is not good enough to safely ride an ATV at night.  It is also much more difficult to judge the terrain to determine how big dips and bumps are, recognize turns, or see objects or animals in your path.

30. Don’t ride on railroads.  This one should be obvious, but people still do it and people are injured or die every year from collisions with trains while riding ATVs.  ATVs are loud, you may not always hear a train approaching you from behind or coming around an upcoming bend.

31. Go with an experienced rider.  When you are learning how to ride an ATV or gaining more experience, it can be very helpful to be riding with a more experienced rider.  He or she can take the lead and so you travel a safer path and give you warning when unsafe conditions approach.


Tips for when you should not be Riding an ATV

32. Don’t drink and drive. I might as well just have a tip that says don’t be stupid.  Seriously, we have all seen enough to know driving drunk is just stupid, irresponsible and dangerous.  This rule isn’t limited to driving cars. Driving an ATV after drinking alcohol is just as dangerous. Victims of ATV accidents over the age of 15 have been found to have alcohol in their system 35 percent of the time.  That is hundreds of people every year that die after drinking and getting on an ATV.

32. Don’t ride under the influence of other drugs.  Victims of ATV accidents over the age of 15 have been found to have illegal drugs in their system 25 percent of the time.  That is a significant number. Illegal drugs are going to impact your ability to drive an ATV similarly to alcohol in most occasions, but it is not just illegal drugs we should avoid when driving ATVs.  Legal drugs like pain killers, marijuana or even energy supplements should be avoided if they have any impact on your judgment, body control, comprehension or reaction time.

33. Don’t ride when fatigued.  We have all seen the signs on a highway that compare drowsy driving to drunk driving.  The same warning applies to driving ATVs.  It is not just drowsy driving that is dangerous though. A full day of hard ATV riding can also cause severe fatigue. Even if you are not drowsy, your reaction time and body control can be greatly impacted when your body is fatigued.  Recognize when your body need sleep or recovery time and stay of an ATV until you are refreshed.

34. Don’t ride with extra passengers.  I was actually surprised at how many ATV accidents are caused by riding with a passenger on the back of an ATV.  Many ATVs are only intended to carry a single rider. If you have such an ATV, never drive it with an extra rider on the back.  Having an unintended passenger will change your center of gravity, make it more difficult to effectively shift your weight and maneuver the ATV, and lead to dangerous accidents such as ATV rollovers.  Extra riders can also be a huge distraction. Injuries to both the driver and the extra rider are common in ATV accidents.

I promise I kept it slow and stayed in the yard with my two nephews on the ATV.

35. Don’t ride a malfunctioning ATV.  If your ATV is malfunctioning or needs repairs, just don’t ride it.  It is not safe. Take the ATV in to get repairs if you cannot do them yourself.  It is not worth the risk of something failing while you are driving full speed.

36. Don’t ride in inclement weather.  It is important to check the forecast before you go riding.  Not only can riding become difficult and dangerous in bad weather, but you want to avoid the risk of getting stuck in inclement weather as well.  While you always run the risk of getting stuck out on a trail due to ATV malfunction or accident, that risk is elevated when you are dealing with inclement weather where you could get snowed in, have the trail washed away, have a log fall across the trail or get stuck in the mud, among other things.  Getting stuck also becomes much more dangerous if you are in bad weather. If you do get stuck, park the ATV in a safe area and seek shelter.

37. Don’t ride alone.  In the event of accident or ATV malfunction, you do not want to be alone out on a trail.  Especially if you are injured, your availability to get needed help is greatly diminished if you are alone.  ATV riders have been stranded on many occasions as a result of an accident, getting lost, running out of gas or ATV malfunctions.  Some of those ATV riders have even died from exposure. You should also bring extra supplies in case you do get stranded.

38. Don’t ride a three-wheeled ATV.  While these are becoming less and less commons since their production stopped in 1988 due to safety concerns, there are still some three-wheeled ATVs out there.  There is a reason companies stopped making them, they simply are not safe. Three-wheelers are especially prone to rolling over when ridden at high speeds or on steep slopes.

Tips for Children

39. Don’t let children drive ATVs.  Even my young girls ride youth ATVs, so I can’t say I follow this rule very well.  That being said, the easiest way to keep children from having an ATV accident is to not let them drive an ATV.  The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Surgeons recommends that children 16 and under should not ride ATVs due to the high risk of serious injuries.  Children are especially prone to ATV injuries because of their lack of experience operating motorized vehicles, lack of psychomotor control and coordination, and lack of judgment that can result in risk-taking behavior and poor decision-making skills.  

40. Keep children on youth ATVs.  While it is easy to say children shouldn’t be on ATVs, you might as well say nobody should be on an ATV and we will all avoid accidents.  Riding ATVs with your kids is a lot of fun and a great family activity if you take proper precautions. The first step you absolutely should follow is to put your children on ATVs appropriate for their size and capabilities.  Simply put, children lack the necessary skills to maneuver an adult-sized ATV. According to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, children under sixteen are twice as likely as adults to be injured when riding adult-sized ATVs.  Children are involved in about one-third of all ATV-related deaths and hospital emergency room injuries. Most of these deaths and injuries occur when a child is driving or riding on an adult ATV.

You should always check the ATV’s label for its recommended minimum age level for drivers.  This is a good starting point, but you should keep in mind the riders size, strength and experience as well.  

How cute is my daughter? There is no way I would risk her safety by putting her on anything bigger than this at her level.

41. Supervise young riders.  This should go without saying.  Kids lack the judgment necessary to ride safely.  While many kids are going to be very timid on an ATV and not be quick to push past their limits, the timidness can be just as dangerous.  No matter the temperament, experience or skill of your child, don’t let them ride unsupervised.  Plus, it is another excused to get you on your ATV so get out there with them.

Brent Huntley

Brent Huntley is the owner of ATV Man and is responsible for almost all the material on the website. He also runs photographyandtravel.com and loves to travel and ride ATVs with his family. When he isn't playing, his day job consists of owning Huntley Law.

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