The All-Terrain Vehicle Boom

This archived article is from April 2003. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

The all-terrain vehicle (ATV) first appeared in Canada in the 1970s. It was designed and sold as a multipurpose utility and recreational vehicle.

ATVs are used in farming, forestry, natural resource exploration, law enforcement and peacekeeping. In recent years, they have become very popular for adventure tourism, trail riding and camping.

Between 1996 and 2001, ATV sales in Canada tripled. As of 2004, about 2.5 million Canadians were riding ATVs and 850,000 owned one. This explosive growth, largely due to recreational use, has led to the formation of provincial ATV federations. The aging population is a factor. People who enjoy the outdoors, but can no longer walk long distances, can venture into the back country on ATVs to enjoy nature.

Injury Alert

With increased exposure has come a rise in injuries — most of them preventable. Speed, inexperience, improper apparel, non-use of helmets and alcohol are common factors. ATV injuries are more likely to happen to boys aged 15 to 19 than any other group. A US study found that only four per cent of the drivers involved in injury incidents reported having had any training.

In February 2003, the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) reported a 50 per cent increase in hospitalizations due to ATVs over the past five years (from 1,693 in 1996/1997 to 2,535 in 2000/2001). In the category of sports and recreation, ATV-related activities are now the third most common cause of severe injuries next to cycling and snowmobiling.

According to CIHI, children between the ages of five and 19 accounted for more than one-third (36 per cent) of all ATV-related injuries. Of the 92 ATV-related severe injury admissions in 2000/2001 where alcohol involvement was recorded, 26 per cent had consumed alcohol. The provinces with the largest increases in ATV-related injuries were New Brunswick (90 per cent) and Alberta (89 per cent).

In November 2000, the New Brunswick government established a task force to address issues surrounding the use of ATVs, including public safety. In New Brunswick legislation, the definition of an "all-terrain vehicle" includes dirt bikes, snowmobiles and amphibious machines.

From 1997-1998 to 2000-2001 the number of ATVs registered in that province rose by over 50 per cent. Reported accidents increased by about 75 per cent from 1996 to 2000. Over half of the collisions were on roads and highways, and almost one-third involved an ATV colliding with an on-road vehicle. Of 112 reported injuries in 1999-2000, children under 16 represented 20 per cent. Almost 1/4 (24.1 per cent) of the total injuries were to the head. In 1999-2000 alone, there were six ATV-related fatalities.

The Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research examined the 20 ATV-related deaths that occurred in that province between July, 1999 and June 2002. Among its findings:

  • The majority (55 per cent) occurred in the summer, between July and September.
  • Eighty-five per cent of the deceased were the drivers of the ATV.
  • At least 60 per cent of the fatalities were due to head injuries.
  • Children and teens represented 45 per cent of those killed, including two passengers and seven drivers. The deceased drivers were all from 10 to 15 years old.
  • Alcohol was involved in 45 per cent of the deaths.

Are ATVs safe?

ATVs are safe as long as riders have the appropriate type and size of vehicle, and follow the instructions in the user’s manual.

Manufacturers clearly warn that children under age 16 should not operate vehicles over 90 cc. Smaller youth models have a reduced speed capability and a tether strap that allows a parent to stop the machine. Used under adult supervision, these models are designed to be safe for children under 16.

While many ATVs can carry only one person safely, Two-Ups take the operator plus one passenger.

With any vehicle - be it a bicycle, a car, an ATV or an 18-wheeler - there is no substitute for a responsible driver. See Safe Rider Code.

Young Riders

An ATV is not a toy. A child involved in a crash could suffer life-altering injuries. If and when your child is ready to use an ATV, match the size of the vehicle to the child, make sure he or she wears protective clothing (including a helmet), and supervise closely. If possible, take the special Canada Safety Council course for children.

Across Canada, regulations vary regarding the minimum age to operate an off-road vehicle on public land. A majority of jurisdictions have legislation that mentions the age of 14, but children who are supervised may operate the vehicle under certain conditions. Following is the recommendation of the New Brunswick task force:

That youth between the ages of 14 and 16 years be required to obtain an all-terrain vehicle learner's permit, for which they must have parental permission. The learner's permit should only be obtained under the following conditions:

  • must successfully complete a mandatory Canada Safety Council approved training course;
  • must be supervised at all times by a parent or legal guardian who has successfully completed a Canada Safety Council approved training course and has a valid driver's licence; and
  • the size of the all-terrain vehicle being operated cannot exceed the size recommended for their age by the manufacturer.

Regulations controlling ATV use on private property would be difficult if not impossible to enforce. Ultimately, the adults in charge must actively supervise and make sure all safety precautions are taken.

Sharpen Your Skills

The Canada Safety Council's ATV RiderCourse is a hands-on training program led by certified instructors. It offers an enjoyable and structured approach to proper ATV operation. For information contact George Smith at (613) 739-1535, ext. 227.

Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research, Injury Control Alberta, August 2002: All terrain vehicle deaths in Alberta
Canadian Institute for Health Information, February 5, 2003: All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) Injuries Resulting in Hospitalization on the Rise
Government of New Brunswick, Report of the New Brunswick All-Terrain Vehicle Task Force, 2001
US Consumer Product Safety Commission, All-Terrain Vehicle Exposure, Injury, Death and Risk Studies, April 1998
ATV Safety Institute