Jolting and tragic, news of the recent deaths of three children using ATVs in separate accidents points to important fundamentals of the sport that can protect the lives of current and prospective riders of any age.
More people are riding
Registered ATV owners in Minnesota, which include the popular side-by-sides known as utility task vehicles or UTVs, have increased about 12% since 2019, to nearly 347,000. That aligns with U.S. sales data, particularly at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which triggered demand for a range of recreational products as people sought refuge outdoors. Bruce Lawrence has a front-row seat to the vehicles' popularity.
"The market is strong," said Lawrence, recreational vehicle coordinator in the law enforcement division of the Department of Natural Resources.
Flouted practices are heightening the risk
Like many outdoor activities, including motorsports, there are inherent risks. Lawrence and other conservation officers supervising ATV use have seen noticeable trends leading to trouble:
Lack of helmet use: Children younger than 18 are required to wear helmets as drivers or passengers.
Lack of supervision: Anyone between 12 and 15 years old must have permission from a parent or guardian to operate an ATV. Relatedly, there are regulations for young riders about crossing certain public roads and that operators can only access public lands if they have safety training certification and are accompanied by a person 18 years or older who has a valid driver's license.
Lack of proper fit: As part of Minnesota's requirement for youth aged 10 to 15, the state has a fit requirement to attempt to keep children on machines they can handle. Yet, as the Star Tribune reported in a series of stories in 2014, many parents let their children drive machines known for a high center of gravity that are built for adults. A 12-year-old boy was killed in February 2021 in Renville County after rolling an ATV.
"It comes back to parental responsibility," Lawrence said.
There is an education gap in the context of fatalities
While not all riders were required by age to have a safety certificate, only one Minnesotan among 43 ATV-related fatalities in 2021 and 2022 had one.
As mentioned above, young Minnesotans ages 10 to 15 are required to take an online safety course and then spend a day in the field learning basic riding skills and how the ATV works. They also must fit the ATV they are using. Their certificate becomes valid at 12.
Anyone born after July 1, 1987 must complete the online safety certification course to ride on public land.
Lawrence said he thinks there are many adults in that age range unaware that they need the safety training certificate to ride.
"I think that is a very fair assessment," said Ron Potter, president of ATV Association of Minnesota (ATV MN), which represents 70 clubs (and 12,000 members) across the state, and whose members help at safety field classes. Potter acknowledged the sport surged during the pandemic, while safety training fell behind when in-person sessions got canceled because of COVID.
The group formed a new safety committee in the last year that works with the DNR on the field classes and other routes to inform Minnesotans, like posting about responsible riding and opportunities to learn at heavily trafficked spots like some trailheads.
"Whatever we can do to remind them that training is important, not only for operating the machine but the environmental part. It is equally important," Potter said. "You've got to be good stewards as well as safe operators."
There are more incidents than get publicized
Lawrence said for all the reported fatalities, there are also stories heard and reports read of sometimes life-altering injuries. Youth as drivers or passengers ejected from vehicles, operating illegally without supervision and also without helmets. Rollovers are a common cause of death and injury. According to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, between 2016 and 2020 there were an annual average of 105,400 ATV-related injuries treated at U.S. emergency rooms. Of those, 26% involved riders 15 and younger.
ATV MN communications director David Halsey said it's unfortunate that many new owners have skipped education. "Over 95% of fatalities nationwide involve no helmet and no seat belts, 'warned against behaviors' that result in injuries and fatalities."
He added that some member groups key in on safety. The Carlton County Riders, for example, has a Lids 4 Kids program. It gives each student in the class a new helmet.
Safety education and tools are a click away
Minnesota ATV safety requirements: From links to the safety certificate course and a calendar of field classes, to a study guide for parents of children ages 6 to 9.
Off-road highway vehicle regulations: OHVs include ATVs and other vehicles. Check out the ATV rules, from what is required for youth (like passenger rules for operators aged 12 to 17) to the difference between Class I and Class II ATVs and how that impacts their use.
Trail Ambassador Program: ATV MN has collaborated with the DNR's Parks and Trails Division on the volunteer program, built on training and then educating the public about safe, responsible riding on public land.