ATV safety: Keeping ATV operators safe in the field
All-terrain vehicles are often used for fun and recreation, but they’re also a useful addition in many lines of business. They do, however, come with risks that include injury and even death. That’s why following industry and provincial guidelines can help keep drivers safe and avoid unnecessary hazards.
According to Statistics Canada, there are 100 ATV-related deaths on average in Canada each year. Among the fatalities between 2013 to 2019, nearly half (45 per cent) were the result of a rollover; other causes included collisions with a stationary object (16 per cent), ejections (12 per cent), and collisions with a moving vehicle (7 per cent).
In Canada, ATV certification may be required for some forms of employment. Oil and gas, energy and forestry workers might use ATVs for surveillance and maintenance, particularly in remote areas. Police might use them for search-and-rescue operations. But smaller operations also use ATVs: Ranchers might use them for checking on cattle or fence lines, while general contractors might use them for projects in remote areas, such as building a cottage.
While oil and gas or hydro companies might have a formalized process in place — such as requiring ATV operators to take a driver safety course and get certified — smaller operations often don’t. But any ATV operator can benefit from training and certification, regardless of their previous experience.
“One of the biggest issues with ATVs is that people get overconfident, particularly if they’re a novice and they decide, ‘Oh, I can climb that hill, I can go through that mud hole,’” says Goruk. After all, some hills are simply too steep for any ATV.
“Our recommendation for any business that has employees operating ATVs is to have them take a certified driver training course,” he says. “You’re not only training the person to ride the machine safely, you as a company owner are doing your due diligence.”
The Canadian ATV Safety Institute (CASI) has joined forces with the ATV Safety Institute (ASI) and the Canadian Off-Highway Vehicle Distributors Council (COHV) to offer the CASI ATV RiderCourse, available in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and P.E.I. In addition, the Canada Safety Council offers ATV rider training operated by CSC-certified instructors.
Most of the provinces also offer safety handbooks, videos, and toolkits that can be referenced, such as Ontario’s Smart Ride Safe Ride and Alberta’s ATV Safety Toolkit.
Helmets and PPE
A helmet is perhaps the most important piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) for ATV operators. At least 33 per cent of riders were not wearing a helmet during ATV-related fatalities between 2013 to 2019, according to Statistics Canada.
There are two main types of helmets: full face (which completely covers the face and chin) and open face (which only covers the head and chin). The ATV Safety Institute recommends that riders wear a DOT- or Snell-approved helmet with a proper safety rating for ATVs. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the applicable standards for ATV helmets include DOT FMVSS 218 or Snell M-2005, M-2010, and CMS/CMR 2007.
“If ATVs are being used in a commercial setting, then the company should be providing a helmet to each person,” says Goruk. Preferably, the helmet should have a full face shield, but if a driver is using an open-face helmet they should also be required to wear protective eye wear. Other recommendations include gloves, boots, and long pants.
While PPE is a simple way to help avoid severe injury or even death, many people don’t consistently wear a helmet or only wear one on public roads. That’s why creating policies and procedures around the operation of ATVs — and having employees sign off on those policies and procedures — is so important, says Goruk. “If you’re found not wearing your helmet or acting recklessly, then your privileges will be revoked,” he says.
Also, ATV drivers should always drive sober, since alcohol and drugs impair your ability to drive and make decisions — and could result in impaired driving charges under the Criminal Code of Canada. In at least 51 per cent of ATV-related fatalities from 2013 to 2019, the driver had reportedly consumed alcohol, cannabis or other drugs, according to Statistics Canada.
Single seats vs. two-ups
Some ATV owners bolt a cargo box on the back of a single-seat ATV and use it as a passenger seat — but that’s not a good idea. “They aren’t designed to hold all that weight,” says Goruk. “It changes the centre of gravity so now you have more weight over the back, making it harder for the driver to control.”
On a single-seat ATV, there are no footwells or grab handles for the passenger, so their dangling legs can easily hit an obstacle, such as a tree. “The passenger has nothing to hold onto, so if they start to fall, they might grab the driver and the driver could lose control or get pulled off with the passenger,” says Goruk.
In some situations, it may be necessary to send out more than one ATV operator for a job. For example, if work is required in a remote area without cellular coverage during winter weather, it’s safer to have a buddy-system in place. But riders should either have their own single-seat ATV or use a two-up ATV designed to carry the weight of two people. A two-up ATV has a longer wheel base and stronger rear suspension, as well as dedicated footwells and grab handles for the passenger — which helps to keep both the driver and passenger safe.
If you’re using an ATV on roadways and public lands, the ATV must be registered with a rear licence plate and insured under a motor vehicle liability policy. “Make sure you’re insured against liability especially if you’re letting someone else drive it,” says Goruk. “And carry a copy of your ownership and registration, as well as a copy of your insurance — preferably in a waterproof pouch.”
Even if someone else is operating the ATV, the owner is still liable for injury or damage — and could be charged under a municipal bylaw or other legislation.
“You should also check the machine before you ride it — check for oil leaks, if tires are inflated properly, if the brakes are working,” says Goruk. Stick to designated trails wherever possible, and always let someone know where you’re going and how long you think you’ll be gone.
While there are risks to operating ATVs, many of those are preventable by following safety rules, wearing PPE, and avoiding reckless driving. The key is to have formal policies and procedures in place that keep drivers accountable — and help keep everyone safe.