All-terrain vehicles are made for off-road use, but large numbers of people take their ATVs on public roads, where they are generally prohibited. About 1,700 ATV riders died in crashes on public roads in the United States from 2007 to 2011.
Although many ATVs can reach highway speeds, their low-pressure tires are not designed for paved surfaces. In addition, many models are apt to roll over.
Deaths of ATV drivers and passengers have increased substantially during the past few decades, as the vehicles have risen in popularity. Today, two-thirds of fatal ATV crashes occur on public or private roads. A recent IIHS study sought to learn more about these crashes and found that the vast majority of ATV riders killed in crashes on public roads are 16 or older and male. Few fatally injured riders wear helmets, and many are impaired by alcohol.
"These vehicles are designed for off-road use, yet most of the fatal crashes are occurring on roads," says Anne McCartt, IIHS senior vice president for research and a co-author of the study.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) conducts a yearly census of ATV rider deaths, including deaths on public roads, on private roads and off-road. Between 1986 and 1998, ATV deaths averaged 227 a year, but then increased to more than 800 in 2007, the last year for which complete CPSC data are available. In 2007, 65 percent of the deaths for which a location was identified took place on public or private roads. The agency estimates that 10.6 million ATVs were in use in the U.S. in 2010, compared with 5.6 million in 2001.
For the Institute study of ATV rider deaths from 2007 through 2011, the researchers turned to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Although this database includes only fatal crashes on public roads, its data are more recent and more comprehensive than what is available from the CPSC.
A total of 1,701 ATV riders were killed on public roads in the five-year period. Some ATVs can carry passengers, but nearly 9 out of 10 riders killed were drivers.
Characteristics of ATV drivers
killed on public roads, 2007-11
|BAC ≥ 0.08%
Ages of ATV riders killed in crashes
on public roads, 2007-11
ATV rider deaths on public roads per 10 million people, 2007-11
Rider fatalities during the five-year period peaked in 2008, declining 19 percent by 2011. As with the recent decline in motor vehicle fatalities generally, much of the drop is believed to be connected to the recent recession.
The crashes occurred primarily in rural areas and in 49 states. No crashes occurred in New Hampshire or the District of Columbia. The highest numbers of deaths occurred in Kentucky (122), Pennsylvania (97), West Virginia (96) and Texas (95). West Virginia had by far the highest rate of ATV rider deaths (105 per 10 million people), and Wyoming was a distant second with 70.
Only 13 percent of drivers and 6 percent of passengers killed wore helmets. That compares with 46 percent of motorcyclists killed in crashes in 2011. Among fatally injured ATV drivers, 43 percent had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or greater, compared with about one-third of passenger vehicle and motorcycle drivers.
Fatal ATV crashes are more likely than other fatal crashes to involve a single vehicle. Three-quarters of the fatal crashes in the study involved just one ATV, while only 46 percent of fatal motorcycle crashes in 2007-11 were single-vehicle crashes. Of the single-vehicle fatal ATV crashes, 56 percent involved a rollover.
Much attention has been paid to ATV fatalities among children, but in recent years most fatally injured ATV riders have been men. Ninety percent of the ATV driver deaths in the federal government's database of fatal crashes were 16 and older, and 90 percent were males.
One way to address the danger of ATVs traveling on paved surfaces might be to strengthen laws that prohibit the vehicles on public roads, since most are paved. Most states have such bans, but they have exceptions that make enforcement difficult. For example, ATVs can cross roads or ride alongside the road for a limited number of miles. Helmet laws also could be strengthened. Only eight states require all ATV operators on public roads to wear helmets. Finally, it may be possible to improve the stability of ATVs to prevent rollovers without sacrificing their off-road capabilities.