Teens driving ATVs

How do you know when your kids are able to drive ATVs? Young teens may not have the strength or skills to safely operate the vehicle

The stats are sobering. The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) reports that in Canada, nearly one-quarter of all-terrain vehicle (ATV)-related deaths are among children under 15 years old. More than one-third of serious injuries from ATV crashes affect children under 15 years. And as the recreational use of ATVs, dirt bikes and snowmobiles increases, so do the injury rates.

Minimum age restrictions

That’s why Safe Kids Canada would like to see minimum age restrictions, requiring children to be 16 before they can operate snowmobiles or ATVs. “The injury patterns we see with ATVs are quite similar to motor vehicle injuries,” says program coordinator Shawna DiFilippo. “Things like injuries to the spine, trauma to the trunk, head injuries — really severe types of injuries that we don’t want children sustaining.”

The CPS has a similar recommendation. Their fact sheet All-Terrain Vehicles: Safety Tips for Parents states that young teens “don’t have the strength, skills or experience to handle ATVs safely.”

That said, both organizations acknowledge that many young teens do drive these vehicles, especially in rural and remote areas. And on farms they may be driving ATVs and tractors for work rather than recreation.
Kenda Lubeck, farm safety coordinator for the Agriculture Education and Training Branch of Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, suggests that even in this setting, children under 14 should not be driving. That position is supported by the 4-H clubs that serve rural kids across the country, says Alberta 4-H branch head Marguerite Stark. “Twelve-year-olds might join the ATV club or the tractor club, but at that age they would not be driving. They would be learning about safety guidelines and a bit about the mechanics of it, but not actually operating it.”

Barbara Dean and her husband, Tim Adams, do allow their 12-year-old daughter, Caitlyn, to join in the family hobby, but under strict supervision. “Her first ATV was child-sized with a governor — a device that allowed us to regulate just how fast it would go and allow her to learn to control the machine safely.” Caitlyn has since outgrown that machine and graduated to a larger vehicle, but she rides only with her parents. “One parent is always in the lead and one behind, with the children in between,” says Dean. “That way we choose the speed and can enforce the rules — no passing, no stunts, no standing on the machine, etc.” The kids are also required to keep a good distance between machines, to use hand signals at all times, and to wear an approved helmet with face mask or goggles, and protective clothing like gloves and long pants.

Rules to remember

These are all good rules, and our experts have a few more to suggest, for teen and adult drivers alike:

• Take a training course, such as the one that’s offered by the Canada Safety Council.
• Wear an approved helmet (for example, a motorcycle helmet) that gives eye protection.
• Avoid three-wheeled ATVs ­— they’re less stable than four-wheeled ones.
• Do not carry a passenger on vehicles designed for one rider (it affects balance and control).
• Ensure the driver can reach and operate controls without straining.

Whether you are considering allowing your child to drive an off-road vehicle at 14 or 16, the most important factor in your decision making may be knowing your own child. Assess her level of responsibility, impulsivity and attraction to risk. “Kids really have to understand that this isn’t a toy, it is a vehicle,” says DiFilippo.