In Focus: ATVs’ design make them unsafe on roads

April 25, 2014 

Many counties and communities around Washington, including some in the Mid-Columbia, are considering ordinances that would open many public roads to all-terrain vehicle (ATV) traffic. As an emergency medicine physician and an ATV injury prevention researcher, I cannot stress enough how concerned I am about the consequences of such actions. More than 60 percent of all ATV-related deaths in the United States and in Washington have resulted from riding on roadways, even though the vast majority of ATV use is off-road. Roadway ATV deaths during the past 15 years have increased at a rate more than twice that of off-road fatalities. Some argue that the ATV riders will be safe as long as they stick to lower-traffic roads, but this is incorrect: Two-thirds of ATV deaths and an even greater percentage of roadway injuries do not involve another vehicle. Moreover, 68 percent of all Washington ATV-related roadway deaths have occurred on unpaved roads. Why is riding an ATV on the road so dangerous? ATV tires have deep treads designed to grab but not release. Cars and motorcycles, by contrast, have tires that are designed to grip and release the road. his difference makes ATVs unpredictable in their performance on roadway surfaces. Most ATVs also have a fixed rear axle. This means that the two back wheels do not turn at a different rate when going around a curve as they do on vehicles designed for roadway travel. Thus, ATVs require a much wider turning radius. In addition, ATVs have a relatively high center of gravity, lower pressure tires and a narrow wheelbase. All of these factors make loss of ATV control and rollovers on roadways an ever-present danger. One must, of course, consider the human side of this issue. My cousin Ken, who lived on a farm near the one I grew up on, was killed when he turned his ATV onto a public county road and was hit by a pickup. It was a terrible thing for the whole community. However, another tragedy occurred that day. Even though the crash was not his fault, the man driving that pickup could never get over the fact that he had killed Ken. He became an alcoholic and lost his family. It makes no sense to put Mid-Columbia families, including motor vehicle operators in the region, at risk for such devastating emotional harm. Among those strongly warning against riding on the roads are the ATV manufacturers and their partners at the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America. In fact, ATV manufacturers warn riders in their owner’s manuals that their product should not be used on the roads, and have placed warning labels on the ATVs stating the same. These warnings are not limited to paved roads. The ATV industry doesn’t want the responsibility, and they certainly don’t want the liability. I’m puzzled why any county or municipality would pass a resolution in violation of these manufacturers’ warnings. Such an ordinance falsely implies that it is safe to go on the road. Any such governing body is misleading their citizens and taking on an unnecessary liability. Supporters of increased ATV road use in some areas have stated that such a move would significantly boost tourism for their community. This is not supported by any data in any state. On the other hand, what it does do is provide increased and uninvited ATV access to the personal property of other landowners and to preserved natural lands. Most communities truly interested in increasing ATV-related tourism have created public off-highway vehicle parks and designated off-highway trail networks. This provides a much safer way to enjoy ATV riding and is a proven way to promote tourism. I hope that Mid-Columbia officials carefully consider the consequences of opening public roads to off-highway vehicle travel. Opening roads to adults will inevitably increase ATV roadway use by children and teens as well. Even one serious injury or death will easily nullify any possible benefit the passage of these ordinances would have for some area residents. Unfortunately, such a consequence is almost a certainty if such a policy is passed.

w Dr. Charles Jennissen is Director of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital.

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