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ATV Safety

What is an ATV?

An ATV is an open, motorized buggy designed for single operator off-road use. This vehicle is equipped with low pressure or soft tires. The units are now mostly sold for recreational use; however, they were originally manufactured for farming use. These vehicles come in a variety of sizes to accommodate operators from age six and older. It is important to note that the 3-wheeled models are called “ATCs” or all-terrain cycles. Manufacturers agreed in 1988 to stop making the 3-wheeled version because of safety issues that lead to vehicle rollovers.

A leading cause of accidents/fatalities to ATV drivers is illegal or improper crossing of a road or highway. The most recent injury data (2001) from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) indicates that there have been over 4,500 ATV related deaths from 1982 to 2001. Virginia ranks twenty-second on the list with 84 incidents within the same time period. According to the CPSC, ATV-related deaths continue to increase and within a five-year period, the national number of ATV-related injuries has doubled.

Within the Commonwealth of Virginia workforce, there has been at least one catastrophic injury and several serious injuries involving state employees using ATVs in the past six years. Some of the agencies currently utilizing ATVs include the Department of Forestry, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and Virginia Tech University. The number of ATV drivers and driving hours has increased, contributing to the increasing number of deaths and injuries.

Due to the growing concern for the safety of ATV operators within the state, Virginia has enacted legislation (§46.2-915) that addresses the proper operation of all-terrain vehicles. It identifies where the vehicles shall be operated within Virginia. The legislation also instructs retailers to affix decals stating the prohibitions identified in the legislation. If there are violations to this legislation, then penalties may be levied against the violating party or parties.

Safety Rules

  1. Never operate an ATV without proper hands-on training.
    1. Read and understand the owners’ operating manual.
    2. Obtain training from a certified instructor.
    3. Practice operating the vehicle in a large, open practice area free from obstacles and hazards.
  2. Make sure the vehicle is properly sized for the rider.
    1. Engine size over 90 cubic centimeters (cc) for age 16 and older
  3. Always wear personal protective equipment.
    1. Approved motorcycle helmet (with DOT, ANSI z90.1, or Snell label)
    2. Mouth protection if an open-faced helmet is used
    3. Protective eyewear (VESC8, V-8, or ANSI z87.1 label)
    4. Gloves with knuckle padding
    5. Heavy, over-the-ankle boots with low heels
    6. Protective clothing (arm and leg protection)
  4. Never operate the ATV on paved or public roads.
    1. The vehicle is designed for off-road operation and it may be difficult to control on paved roads.
  5. Operate the ATV during daylight hours.
    1. Bouncing and turning decreases the effectiveness of the headlights.
  6. Do not ride with a passenger or as a passenger.
    1. The driver’s ability to shift weight to control and steer an ATV can be impaired.
  7. Follow manufacturer’s instructions for maintenance.
  8. Avoid excessive speeds.
  9. Do not operate if fatigued.
    1. Operating an ATV can be tiring. Distance and riding times should be limited until the body is conditioned to do more.
  10. Do not drive while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
    1. Thirty percent of all ATV riders killed in accidents were drinking.

Vehicle Inspection

The operating condition of the ATV should be regularly inspected before each ride. Properly inspecting the vehicle reduces the chances of being injured or stranded. The operator should carry a toolkit to make any necessary adjustments or to address any emergencies.

Areas that should be inspected include:

  1. Tires and wheels
    1. Visually inspect the condition of the tires and wheels for wear or cracks, make sure the axle nuts are secured, and check the tire pressure to ensure that the tire is properly filled.
  2. Controls
    1. Check the throttle and brakes and the corresponding cables.
    2. Check the position of the foot-controlled gearshift.
  3. Lights and Switches
    1. Make sure the ignition and engine stop switches operate properly.
    2. Test the ignition switch by turning it on and off as the vehicle warms up.
    3. Test rear lights and headlights for proper operation.
  4. Oil and Fuel
    1. Just as with an automobile, the oil level should be checked while the ATV is off.
    2. Visually inspect the area around the ATV for visible fluid leaks.
    3. Always fill up before beginning the ride to make sure there is enough fuel.
  5. Chain/Driveshaft and Chassis
    1. If the ATV has a chain: visually inspect the chain for the proper tension, lubrication, unusual wear, or damage.
    2. If the ATV has a driveshaft, inspect for leaks and the oil supply.

Best Practices for Safe Operation

To minimize the likelihood of an injury or accident while operating an ATV, the rider should keep both hands on the handlebars, knees toward the gas tank, and both feet on the footrest while moving. A correct, straight-line posture also makes it easier to control the vehicle. The rider should look well ahead of the travel path to anticipate reacting to upcoming hazards. Judgment and good common sense should be used when riding in an unfamiliar area. The operator should also use caution when cornering, turning, traveling up or down hills, or traveling across a slope.

Take frequent breaks, since operating the ATV is more physically demanding than operating an automobile. Try not to travel more than one hour without stopping, stretching, and walking around.

Operating the ATV on different types of surfaces can prove to be challenging and dangerous. Traveling on sand, mud, water, and snow can be tricky; however, it is not an impossible task. Identifying the dangers and hazards of operating in these conditions will greatly improve the probability of a safe ride.


  • Avoid wet sand.
  • Do not ride on vegetation.
  • Pay close attention to hazards on riding surfaces when the sun is overhead.

Mud and Water

  • Do not cross water deeper than what the manufacturer recommends.
  • Cross river and stream banks where there is a gradual incline.
  • Use caution when using footrests that may become slippery.v
  • Watch for objects or hazards under the water.
  • Test brakes after exiting water.


  • Check the weather forecast.
  • Dress appropriately.
  • Make sure the ATV can travel on snowmobile trails before using them.
  • Do not travel in unfamiliar areas without an established trail.


Operating an ATV is serious business and extreme care should be taken when doing so. Protect employees required to operate these vehicles by providing the appropriate training and personal protective equipment. Emphasize the importance of properly maintaining the ATV, obeying safety rules, and sticking to the off-road trails. Applying these simple principles may reduce the likelihood that an injury or death will occur from operating an ATV.


The following links provide additional information about ATVs or ATV safety.

“Ride Safe, Ride Smart” Video (single copies available free from ATV Safety Institute);

ATV Rider Course (contact the ATV Safety Institute or your local dealer for classes in your area);

ATV Safety for Farm Work, Recreation;

Common Denominators of Serious Wildland Fire Related Vehicle Accidents An Emphasis on the ATV;

Honda Rider Education;


ATV Safety Institute. (2001). Tips and Practice Guide for the All-Terrain Vehicle Rider. Irvine, CA: Specialty Vehicle Institute of America.

ATV INFO.COM. (2004-2005). Facts About ATV.

US Consumer Product Safety Commission. All-Terrain Vehicle Safety. Washington, DC.

G2 WebLink Injury Reporting System.

The World Chronic Pain. All Terrain Vehicle Safety.

Virginia General Assembly. (1989). All-terrain vehicles; penalty. Richmond, VA.

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