10 Safety Rules for ATVs and Snowmobiles
Key tips to know before you motor off-road
Riding off-road on an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) or a snowmobile can be exhilarating — and dangerous. In 2011, ATV-related mishaps sent more than 100,000 riders to the emergency room, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Of those, 29,000 were children under age 16. By the CPSC’s calculations, snowmobiling injuries send another 13,400 people to the ER each year.
To keep a day of serious off-road fun from ending in a serious off-road accident, pair a heavy dose of common sense with these safety tips for ATV and snowmobile use.
1. Get some driver’s ed. Take a safety course from a qualified instructor. “Hands-on training can give you the skills to handle multiple riding situations,” says Carl E. Purvis, public affairs specialist at the CSPC. These include negotiating turns, riding on hills, swerving around obstacles and emergency stopping. At the very least, sign up for online training.
2. Research the rules. Most states have laws regarding the use of ATVs. However, they vary widely. Some restrict where you can ride, some have age restrictions governing who can ride unsupervised and some have helmet laws. The same goes for snowmobiles. For example, a handful of states require safety certification for snowmobile riding. Before you head out, be sure you know the rules of the off-road in your state.
3. Know your ride. If you’ve purchased an ATV or snowmobile, read the owner’s manual. Take special note of warnings and guidelines for proper maintenance. Check tire pressure, brakes, throttle, gas and oil levels before each ride. If you’ll be riding a rented ATV or snowmobile, take time to familiarize yourself with the vehicle, even if you’re a veteran off-roader.
4. Check the forecast. Temperature extremes, precipitation and other factors can ruin a ride or worse if you find yourself stranded under a blazing sun or in a blizzard. If the weatherman predicts triple-digit heat, a negative wind chill, low visibility or an incoming storm, stay safe by staying home.
5. Plot your route. Travel with maps or a GPS. Leave your itinerary with someone you trust. Include instructions for what to do if you and your family or fellow riders aren’t back by a specific time.
6. Put your head first. Riders who don’t wear a helmet are more likely to get hurt and die from an injury than those who do. One study that looked at ATV-related deaths over a span of five years found that the vast majority of people killed were riding without a helmet. Make sure your helmet is designed for your vehicle, says Purvis. It should be safety-certified by either the Department of Transportation or the Snell Memorial Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helmet safety research. A full-faced helmet with built-in goggles offers the most protection. Air vents that open and close can provide a bit of climate control. A built-in visor can help with visibility. Your helmet should fit snugly but still be comfortable.
7. Dress the part. Protect the rest of your body by wearing goggles (if your helmet doesn’t have them), gloves and over-the-ankle boots. In cold weather, dress in layers. Start with a moisture-wicking fabric like polypropylene next to your skin (if cotton gets wet, it stays wet). Even when it’s hot, long sleeves and long pants are a must to protect your skin from sun and scratches.
8. Ride alone — and together. Most ATVs and snowmobiles are made for one person. Adding a passenger can throw a vehicle off-balance and increase the risk of a rollover. But riding solo doesn’t mean going it alone. Practice the buddy system: Always ride with at least one other off-roader (but no tailgating).
9. Be a grown-up. Never, ever ride under the influence of alcohol or drugs. And just because a vehicle can reach 60 mph doesn’t mean you should take it to the limit. Stay on designated trails and off of paved roads. Steer clear of water. The same goes for avalanche-prone areas. If you plan to ride in the backcountry, take an avalanche safety course first.
10. Think twice about letting kids drive. Snowmobiles and ATVs are not toys. They are powerful machines that can be dangerous. Manufacturers and safety experts agree that children under 16 should not operate snowmobiles or ATVs designed for adults. “Ninety-six percent of ATV-related deaths of children have involved adult-sized vehicles,” says Charles Jennissen, MD, a clinical associate professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.
Even vehicles designed for kids can be hazardous, says Jennison, who has done extensive research on ATV safety. Machines built for children 6 and under can go up to 15 mph; models for kids over 12 can reach 30 mph. “Most children are not developmentally ready to meet [the] significant challenges” involved in properly driving these vehicles.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under age 16 not operate any ATV or snowmobile. If you allow a child to drive an off-road vehicle, it’s imperative to set strict safety guidelines, enforce consequences if safety rules are broken and supervise rides, says Jennissen.