By: Charles Jennissen, MD, FAAP
You don't see them just in rural areas anymore. All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) are popular among outdoor enthusiasts of all ages who ride them on trails, fields and off-highway vehicle parks.
ATVs are motorized vehicles with three or four off-road tires, throttle and hand brakes on the handlebars and a straddle seat. Most ATVs these days have four wheels since three-wheeler production was banned in 1988.
Driving an ATV requires skill and quick thinking. It also takes reflexes and strength that kids just don't have. That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under 16 should not be allowed to operate an ATV.
Why ATVs aren't safe for kids
From 1985–2015, ATV crashes killed more than 3,000 children under the age of 16. Nearly 1 million more were taken to the emergency department due to an ATV crash. In fact, it's estimated that about 4 kids are seen in an emergency department every hour for an ATV-related injury in the United States.
With advances in technology, ATVs are becoming bigger and faster. While this increases the vehicles' "thrill factor," it also creates the potential for more traumatic injuries.
The most common types of ATV injuries are bumps, bruises, cuts, dislocations and fractures. But more serious injuries also happen. A rollover can lead to trauma to the chest, abdomen, head or spine. Concussions and other head injuries are common, especially if the rider is not wearing a
Around 60% of ATV deaths occur on public roadways, both paved and unpaved. Despite their name, ATVs are not safe on all terrains. They have a high center of gravity, a narrow track, and off-road tires that can unevenly grab paved or gravel road surfaces.
If you do allow your children under age 16 to ride an ATV, the AAP urges you to follow these safety rules:
Wear a helmet. Riders should always wear motorcycle-style helmets that are approved by the Department of Transportation. Wearing a helmet may greatly prevent or reduce the severity of a head injury in a crash.
Don't ride with or as a passenger. Most ATVs are designed to carry only one person: the driver. Passengers can make ATVs less stable and difficult to control.
Stay off public roads. ATVs are not designed for roadway use like cars and trucks. They don't have the common safety equipment that all cars and trucks do. ATVs have knobby treaded, low pressure tires that can unpredictably grab public roadway surfaces and lead to loss of control and rollover.
Don't cross public roads. The exception is if it's permitted by law and supervised by someone who is at least 18 years old.
Only use an ATV that is the right size for the driver. Adult-sized ATVs can weigh over 800 lbs. and reach speeds over 70 mph. Their size and speed make them too dangerous for kids to drive. More than 90% of deaths and injuries among ATV riders younger than 16 have occurred when they were on adult-size vehicles.
Never allow riding at night. This means no riding after dusk and until dawn. Flags, reflectors and lights should always be used to make vehicles more visible.
Do not drive ATVs while under the influence. Alcohol, drugs and even some prescription or over-the-counter medicines can physically or mentally impair your driving skills and abilities. This sets a good example for your children too.
To reduce risks as much as possible, the AAP recommends these practices by age group:
Children younger than 6 years of age:
Never allow children in this age group to operate an ATV. Their physical, mental, and reasoning skills are way too limited.
Never carry or allow kids under 6 to ride as passengers on an ATV.
Children 6 to 11 years of age:
There are youth ATV models made for kids in this age group. But their safety is unknown and kids this age still have many limitations in their abilities.
Considering these points, it's best to not allow children this age on ATVs at all.
Children 12 to 15 years of age:
Keep children in this age range on youth ATV models. Even though some kids may fit adult ATVs properly, 98% of deaths and injuries in this age group happen on adult vehicles.
Directly supervise your child to make sure they follow safe riding practices.
Teenagers 16 years of age and older:
Teens in this age group should follow all the safety rules and recommendations above. This includes always wearing an approved helmet and never riding with passengers.
Unless it's absolutely necessary, your teen shouldn't drive on public roads. Even if it's legal, it's not safe.
If your older teen does drive on a public road, they should follow all traffic safety laws and regulations.
It's best for your teen to avoid riding at night, even if it's legal.
The AAP strongly encourages parents and other adults to follow these additional safety recommendations:
Get training. Have your child or teen take an ATV safety course before they ride an ATV. Check
ATVsafety.org or call 1-800-887-2887 for resources.
Wear protection. Make sure your child wears other protective gear along with a helmet. This includes a face shield or goggles, long sleeves, long pants, over-the-ankle boots, and gloves. Consider using a chest protector and sturdier gear if your child is going to be riding at higher speeds, such as ATV motocross racing.
Check the speed limiter. Set and enforce speed limiter settings on youth ATV models for noncompetitive riding.
Add safety features. Put an orange safety flag at least 5 feet off the ground on your child's youth-size ATV. Use reflectors and lights so the ATV can be seen better by others.
Educate. Make sure your child knows and understands the ATV safety rules.
Encourage consistent safety rule practice. Use appropriate discipline when needed so your child has consequences when they don't follow the rules. For example, if they ride without their protective gear, you could take away riding privileges for a specific amount of time.
Types of ATVs
ATVs come in a wide range of shapes, sizes and power levels. Most have four tires are designed exclusively for use on off-road terrain only
Three-wheeled ATV production was banned in 1988 because of how unsafe they are. But these vehicles are still injuring and killing riders, including children. Because of this, the AAP recommends that if you have a 3-wheeler, you stop using it immediately. Don't sell it to anyone else. Instead, make sure it can't be operated.
What to know about youth model ATV categories
There are four youth ATV categories that vary in speed and motor size. No ATVs are made for children younger than 6. Many youth ATVs come with speed limiters. These are usually a screw that limits the throttle.
Youth Model Name
Max speed with speed limiter engaged
Max speed without speed limiter engaged
6 years and older
10 years and older
12 years and older
14 years and older
There is no research to suggest whether these speeds are safe for kids to travel. The manufacturers haven't done any studies with kids to determine the speeds at which they can safely drive.
What about side-by-sides?
Another type of off-road vehicle that's becoming more popular is the side-by-side. Like ATVs, side-by-sides can roll over. Unlike ATVs, many of them have seat belts and a rollover protective structure. Still, side-by-sides are a safety concern as well.
These recommendations from AAP are for ATVs. They do not include side-by-sides. As more research is completed, a separate policy statement with recommendations for side-by-sides.
ATV laws and regulations
The majority of states have laws about the operation of ATVs. The laws vary greatly by state. These regulations cover everything from helmet use to how old the driver must be. Yet even states with the most complete sets of rules report ATV-related deaths and injuries each year.
You can check the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) for information on
ATV laws and training in your state.
Even if you don't own an ATV yourself, don't assume that your child doesn't have access to one. If you don't want your child on an ATV, let your child, your child's friends and other relevant adults know.
If you allow your child to operate an ATV, you should closely supervise them and enforce safety rules. But remember that just watching your child won't prevent a crash.
It's very easy for a child to jump on an ATV, push the throttle and make it go. But that doesn't mean that they're able to make the decisions that are necessary to safely operate them.
About Dr. Jennissen
Charles Jennissen, MD, FAAP, is a Clinical Professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. He is lead author of the AAP policy statement and technical report on ATV safety. Dr. Jennissen serves on the AAP Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention and Section on Emergency Medicine.