Don’t risk your life when operating an ATV

All-terrain vehicles have long been standard equipment on fruit and vegetable farms across the country. While safety features of ATVs have improved over the years, growers, their workers and young family members continue to get seriously injured and killed in preventable incidents (Table 1).

“Head injuries are common due to not wearing a helmet,” says Mark Purschwitz, extension professor and agricultural safety and health specialist at the University of Kentucky. ATV operators also carry extra riders, operate the ATV too fast, take turns too fast, travel on paved roads and go down narrow trails too fast or without proper control, he says.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), more than 48 percent of all farms, regardless of size, in the United States had ATVs in 2004 (the latest year these statistics are available, Table 2 and Table 5). Of the 1.16 million ATVs in use on farms that year, 451,545 were being used on crop farms (Table 3), and 676,354 of the ATVs in use on all farms were being operated 10 or more times each month (Table 4).

Photo Courtesy of Barbara Mulhern.
ATVs such as this are commonly used on farms throughout the United States. Unsafe operation of an ATV, including the failure to wear a helmet, often results in severe injuries or death.

Although the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and major ATV manufacturers agreed in 1988 to halt the production of three-wheeled ATVs, “I still see some of them when driving out in the country, so I assume some farmers are still using them,” Purschwitz says.

Three-wheeled ATVs are less stable and more prone to overturning than four-wheeled ATVs, “so I would recommend that they not be used and simply be taken out of circulation; not sold to someone else,” he says.

The hazards

Growers use ATVs for many purposes: to inspect crops; inspect and repair irrigation systems and fence lines; fertilize and apply chemicals; mow grass; move dirt; and transport various items, says Dennis Murphy, extension safety specialist at Penn State University.

Adult, work-size ATVs come equipped with engines from 90cc to 700cc or higher, with gear ratios that allow speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour, he says. “The use planned for the ATV should determine the size of the engine and the gear ratios. There are few, if any, reasons for a maximum speed of more than 25 miles per hour in any agricultural operation,” Murphy says.

Yet, excess speed combined with not wearing a helmet is often a major factor in fatalities resulting from ATV overturns. It’s not just growers and their workers who are being seriously injured and killed. It’s also young people living on farms who operate ATVs for recreational purposes, but are not adequately trained, operate an ATV larger than the recommended size for their age and don’t wear a helmet.

Michael Goldcamp, a researcher with NIOSH’s Division of Safety Research, noted in a presentation at the National Institute for Farm Safety’s 2008 annual conference that in 2001, 2004 and 2006, youths living and/or working on farms experienced 5,321 reported injuries resulting from the use of an ATV. Sixty-three percent of these injuries occurred to youths between 10 and 15 years old, and only 40 percent of all of the injured young people were wearing helmets at the time.

“ATVs with engine displacements of 90cc and greater are not intended or recommended for children and youths younger than 16 years old,” Goldcamp says.

Murphy describes the following hazards concerning the use of ATVs on farms. (Note: For more information, including a document entitled “Safe Use of ATVs in Agriculture,” visit and search for “ATV safety.”)

  • Overturns. ATV overturns on steep or uneven terrain can happen quickly. High speeds, uneven ground and ditches or large rocks increase the chances of the ATV being rolled or flipped during operation. Rear overturns may result from climbing steep slopes, popping the clutch on a hard surface or attempting to carry or tow too heavy of a load up a slope.
  • Loading and braking. Heavy loads can push ATVs down slopes, increasing the risk of jackknifing, sliding out of control or rolling over. Also, the front and back tires of an ATV may operate independently or may have a linked design in which all four brakes work together. Operating an ATV with a linked brake system reduces the chances of inappropriately or mistakenly applying the front or rear brake in a manner that reduces control of the ATV, Murphy says.
  • Unseen obstacles. It’s important to be familiar with the terrain on which you will be operating an ATV. High-speed travel across a field could lead to the ATV dropping into a ditch or hole or hitting a rock.

Purschwitz adds that it’s also critical to understand how attachments change the center of gravity and therefore the handling of an ATV. “There are sprayers and fertilizer spreaders that mount on ATVs which raise the center of gravity, and, in the case of sprayers, you may have a liquid moving around inside the tank as you go over rough ground. Mounted attachments or anything pulled behind the ATV may also challenge the braking system, especially going downhill,” he says.

Important safety tips

  • Always wear a helmet when operating an ATV. A full-face helmet offers the greatest protection. Make sure the helmet you choose is Snell and/or DOT (Department of Transportation) certified. Murphy recommends that you also check the helmet you purchase for the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z90.1 label.
  • Use other appropriate protective equipment. Safety goggles are important to protect your eyes. Other protective clothing or equipment includes sturdy gloves (in most cases, well-padded gloves), high-quality boots or over-the-ankle work shoes with slip-resistant soles and heels, hearing protection, a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. Note: If you are using the ATV to apply pesticides, check the pesticide label for any additional personal protective equipment that may be required.
  • Never carry extra riders. Also, don’t allow children or youths to operate adult-sized ATVs.
  • Make sure all ATV operators have been adequately trained.
  • Stay off of paved roads.
  • Be extra cautious when carrying loads. Also, remember that mounted attachments can change the center of gravity of the ATV.
  • Use lights, reflectors and highly visible flags to increase the visibility of your ATV.
  • Never operate an ATV when alcohol or other drugs are in your system.

Purschwitz also strongly recommends that growers determine whether an ATV is really needed versus an off-road utility vehicle. “Off-road utility vehicles do not go as fast, are designed more for power and work than for speed and recreation, are designed for carrying loads, and are wider and have longer wheelbases than ATVs, which makes them more stable,” he says.

Barbara Mulhern is a Belleville, Wis.-based agricultural/horticultural freelance writer.