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Column originally published Jul 19, 2005

Precautions To Prevent ATV Accidents

Question: I work in the emergency room. Last week, an eleven-year-old boy was brought to our emergency room with serious injuries following an ATV accident. He was riding the family’s ATV when it flipped over and pinned him underneath. He was lucky that he was able to free himself and went for help. He had a fractured collar bone and his neck was almost broken. There were bruises and scrapes all over his head, his arms and his legs. He was not wearing a helmet, and there was nobody supervising him. All of us in the emergency room were very concerned. This young boy could have been killed or paralyzed. Please pass on the message to parents and the public about the danger of children driving ATVs.


Thank you for bringing this accident to my attention. I have seen similar injuries in children and adults in my work that we should bring this up, not only to the attention of parents and the public, but also to government officials who are responsible for drafting effective legislation which can reduce and prevent such injuries. Moreover, the ultimate responsibility lies with parents and caregivers who need to ensure that young children do not have access to ATVs, and when they are old enough to drive one, they should follow all the proper precautions that I will discuss here.

All-terrain vehicles, more commonly known as ATVs, are motor vehicles designed to be driven on non-paved surface. There are usually three or four wheels, although some new ones can have up to six wheels, each with a large low pressure tire. Almost all of them are designed for one person use only. When a passenger climbs on board, this can affect the balance of the vehicle so that it is harder for the driver to control the ATV. Many ATV accidents are felt to be caused by the presence of a passenger.

The reason why ATVs are prone to accidents is partly because of its design. The tires are large relative to the size of the vehicles. As a result, the centre of gravity is high, and they can flip over easily when they hit bumps in their path. Since the vehicles are designed to be driven off-road, uneven surface and bumps are inherent parts of the experience.

As a result, many injuries in ATV accidents are similar to the one that you described: the driver or passenger got trapped under an overturned ATV. Aside from scrapes and bruises which are often not reported at all if they are not too serious, more severe and sometimes fatal injuries are not uncommon especially in summer months.

Most recent statistics in Canada showed that children less than 15 years of age account for almost one-quarter of deaths and more than one-third of injuries as a result of ATV accidents. Although most ATV operators are adults, children account for a high percentage of injuries and death. Physical strength, skill, and maturity of the driver, are all important requirements in safe operation of ATVs, and these are often lacking in young drivers.

The most lethal ATV accident occurs when it collides with motor vehicles on highways. Unfortunately, this also happen most often when the driver is young and inexperienced.

The question often arise is: How to make ATV experience safe for Canadians? Canada is largely a rural country, and ATV can be the only mean of transportation in some remote areas.

One important fact is that ATVs that are sold today are not very safe. They are big, heavy, and powerful machines that are not very stable because of their design and construction. There is also no protection for the occupant if there is an accident. Design changes are necessary to make these vehicles safer. Manufacturers, with the guidance from federal and provincial governments, can make changes to ATVs to make them safer.

However, owners and riders of ATVs can make a significant difference by following some common sense rules. These can include wearing approved motorcycle type of helmets, as well as appropriate clothing, including boots, gloves, and long pants. These can protect their extremities from flying rocks and other objects propelled by the tires.

Riders of ATVs should attend and complete an approved training course, such as the Canada Safety Council’s ATV Rider’s Course, in order to learn how to safely operate the machine. Many may believe that this is not necessary. However, this course can help the driver to understand the intricacies of ATVs and some of the dangers and precautions which are not obvious to everyone. One can equate this to the driver’s education course before getting a driver’s license for cars. Insurance companies can assist in this area by reducing the insurance for those drivers and owners who have taken such courses.

Those who have taken a safety course would know that one should never drive an ATV after drinking or at night. Alcohol reduces a person’s ability to make proper judgement, the same as drinking and driving a car. At night, it is difficult to see the surrounding terrain, even though ATVs are equipped with headlights. Because it is an off-road vehicle, there can be barbed wires and other obstacles that cannot be seen until it is too late. The danger is similar to driving a snowmobile at night.

Finally, and probably the most important in the scenario that you have described here, is that children should not ride in an ATV as the driver or passenger. The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) recommends that children under 16 years of age should not operate an ATV. These children do not have the strength or skill to drive one. Many teenagers may argue that they are mature enough to do just that. They may even be able to show their parents or guardians that they can drive an ATV safely. However, in the moment just before an accident, they may not be able to make the proper decision to avoid it, and end up with accidents much more often than adults.

The CPS also call upon the governments at all levels to harmonize their ‘off-road vehicle’ legislation (that includes ATVs), to set minimum driving age of 16 years, restrict passenger numbers, compulsory use of helmet, mandatory training, as well as licensing and registration. This will correct the present situation where few provinces have legislation on the safe use of ATVs. CPS also recommends the total ban of three-wheeled ATVs; they are more dangerous than the four-wheelers.

Parents and guardians, please pay attention to how this accident has raised the alarm in the emergency department that looked after this boy, and how that must have traumatized everyone who worked in that department. Help us to avoid any more unnecessary accidents and injuries to our young ones, the future of our society. And if you have the opportunity to speak to a public official, make them become aware of the role that government can play to prevent such injuries.