Matt Gibbens has been riding all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs, for a long time, but he’s never taken a safety course.
“I know there's a lot of them out there but I've just grown up on them,” Gibbens said.
Gibbens grew up on a farm and said he’s used ATVs for both work and play. But despite his experience with the machine, he’s still dressed from head to toe in protective gear, including a helmet, goggles, and chest protector.
Gibbens said he thinks about safety every time he gets on his ATV.
“Because all it takes is one time. You just try to put everything on, wear a helmet every time you get out and ride because you never know,” Gibbens said.
Unfortunately, that “one time” happens a lot. The Missouri State Highway Patrol reported that almost 30 deaths and over 300 injuries involving ATVs occurred in 2013.
Although there are many more injuries reported each year from motorcycle accidents in Missouri, ATVs might not be a safer option. According to a 2010 study by researchers at John Hopkins Center for Surgical Trials and Outcomes Research, riders involved in ATV accidents are more likely to die or have more severe injuries than riders involved in motorcycle crashes.
Captain Jay Hull from the Highway Patrol says Missouri numbers for ATV accidents do include crashes on private property, but the most devastating accidents happen on the road.
“Any time you start mixing off-road vehicles with passenger vehicles or pick-up trucks and things like that on a highway, you're going to see some traffic crashes,” Hull said. “They're a little harder to control and there's just a lot of traffic out there and they're difficult to see.”
Under Missouri Law, ATVs may not be ridden on public roads unless it is for agricultural work. But Hull says it’s not uncommon for troopers to get called out to rural areas to investigate riders who don’t appear to be headed to the pasture.
Kent Shannon with MU Extension said ATVs are not dangerous when they are operated correctly. Shannon is a Natural Resource Engineering Specialist and he said riders are at the greatest risk when they don’t follow the manufacturer’s guidelines.
“Probably the number one thing is somebody is riding or operating the ATV, that the ATV may be too big for them. Then you do not have as much control over that ATV as you would elsewhere. The other biggest thing that we see is an ATV specifically is designed for one person. So some of the accidents that we do see, there's multiple people on the ATV so that becomes a risk.”
ATV manufacturers are aware of their customers’ need for training. Many companies are now offering to reimburse customers for approved safety courses. They also clearly state the recommended minimum age for each vehicle.
More than one-third of people who were injured in ATV crashes in 2013 were 18 or younger according to the Highway Patrol’s report.
But Hull said the state’s current regulations don’t keep kids away.
“Since they're not licensed vehicles they can be ridden on their own property at pretty much any age as long as they are supervised under the age of 16 by a parent or guardian,” Hull said. “It would be difficult to impose any kind of restrictions for that.”
Jim Smith has been riding ATVs and dirt bikes for about 20 years. He said he thinks Missouri regulations regarding youth and ATVs are fine.
“I believe under adult supervision, let them ride,” Smith said. “I have two kids, both of them ride. So they enjoy it, they have just as much fun as I do with it.”