It was early July, and my family and I were putting in food plots. After hand-broadcasting a brassica blend, we were dragging box springs from an old mattress to push the seed into the soil.
The railroad ties we’d attached to the springs weren’t heavy enough, so I asked my 14-year-old nephew to sit on the springs — as I drove across the plot with him and the makeshift drag behind my all-terrain vehicle.
Thankfully, my nephew wasn’t injured. And truth be told, I’m sure many other deer hunters have cut similar safety corners. ATVs and UTVs (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to both types of vehicles as ATVs) are used for much more than transporting hunters and deer. They come in handy hauling stands and other such equipment and when establishing and maintaining food plots. Today’s ATVs are high-tech machines that help hunters accomplish tasks quickly and efficiently.
But like any other tool, they also can be dangerous. Thousands of folks are seriously injured each year, and too many killed, while using ATVs. Let’s take a closer look at the problem and how hunters can use these vehicles more safely and effectively.
According to the ATV Safety Institute, there are more than 11 million ATVs in the U.S. alone. While the vast majority of owners use their machines for recreational riding, 22 percent use them for farm work, hauling equipment and/or establishing and maintaining food plots for wildlife.
In 2011 (the latest year for which data are available), the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reported 327 people died in ATV-related accidents, including 10 under the age of 13. More than 100,000 others were treated in hospital emergency rooms for ATV-related injuries. Two-thirds of ATV accidents occur on roads.
“A big part of the problem is that these vehicles are not designed for use on public roads,” says Anne McCartt, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) senior vice-president for research. “The other part is, you often see risky behavior among drivers in these fatal crashes. Only 13 percent of them were wearing a helmet.”
Between 2007 and 2011, the IIHS found that 1,701 ATV riders died in crashes on public roads. Kentucky had the most deaths (122), while West Virginia had the highest death rate per 10 million people (105).
An alarming trend is the number of accidents involving those of age 16 or under. The Mayo Clinic reports children account for one-third of ATV-related emergency room visits and one-quarter of the deaths. To put this into perspective, more children die or are injured in ATV mishaps than in bicycle accidents.
Why? “Kids are operating machines that are built for adults,” says CPSC spokesperson Carl Purvis.
Federal law prohibits the direct sale of adult ATVs to children, but the CPSC found 31 percent of all dealers guilty of making such sales in 2011. And families often purchase adult-sized machines for their children, ignoring the warning stickers found on all brands of ATVs.
Bob Hartwood’s 14-year-old son was driving across a cut corn field at high speed when he hit an unseen rock and was thrown from the machine. He’s now paralyzed from the waist down.
“We just figured that he’d grow into it,” Bob says. “It didn’t really occur to us that the ATV was probably too big for our son to handle.”
Other common reasons accidents occur include multiple riders on ATVs built for one person, riders not wearing proper safety gear (boots, gloves, helmet, full pants and long-sleeved shirt) and operators lacking training and/or experience.
Manufacturers are required to offer a hands-on ATV safety course, but most states don’t mandate them. Only North Carolina requires anyone born after 1990 to pass an ATV safety program before operating one.
Most ATV accidents and deaths are easily preventable by taking a few safety precautions. Buying age-appropriate machines for minors, always wearing a helmet and staying off public roads all substantially lower the risk of being killed or injured.
Of course, we deer hunters use ATVs in many ways. We haul equipment, work food plots, etc. So let’s look at some other practical measures that can keep more of us safe along the way.
Besides always wearing a helmet and safety glasses/goggles, one of the steps to hauling deer stands and other bulky equipment safely is to properly maintain your machine. Frequently monitor tire pressure, maintain brakes and regularly inspect your ATV for any damage.
As is the case with hunting itself, it’s smart to have a plan before you venture into the woods on your ATV.
“Let others know where you’re going and when they can expect you back,” says Donna Beadle, spokesperson for Polaris. “And make sure you have what you need to get back if the vehicle should malfunction or you have an accident.”
Know how much you can safely carry on the racks of your ATV, and don’t go over those weight limits. For most machines, the maximum is 100 pounds on the front rack and 200 on the rear. And never transport heavy/bulky equipment partially intact. Disassemble items to better distribute the weight evenly from left to right and from front to rear.
Some other tips to help you haul safely include the following:
- For transporting heavy loads, many ATV models allow users to adjust the shocks to a firmer setting, providing a safer ride.
- If traveling in unfamiliar territory, a handlebar-mounted GPS unit can help you find your way.
- Add mirrors to your machine to aid in backing up and turning.
- Be aware of your machine’s ground clearance, and stay within its limits.
- Accessories such as rack extenders and tree stand carriers make hauling safer and easier. If you’re looking to get some, “It’s best to buy accessories made by your ATV’s manufacturer,” notes Derrek Sigler, ATV editor for OutdoorHub. “They’ve been tested and proven to work well with your machine.”
- Finally, never stand on your ATV to set up or take down a deer stand.
ATV Use In Food Plots
Start by picking an ATV with enough power for disking, cultipacking and other routine food plot work.
“You need a machine with at least 500cc (engine displacement),” says Ed Spinazzola, author of Ultimate Deer Food Plots. “Take your time, and don’t run your ATV at maximum power too much, or you’ll ruin it.”
While today’s ATVs are built with plenty of power, they weren’t necessarily built for heavy agricultural work. Make sure you’ve properly attached your implement to the ATV, and leave enough space between the implement and the rear of the vehicle for sharp turns and reverses. And regularly monitor the ATV’s coolant system to prevent overheating.
Finally, wear all protective gear: a helmet, safety goggles, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. A helmet might be uncomfortable in hot weather, but faithfully wearing it beats suffering a head injury caused by an accidental tip-over.
Whenever you attach anything to your ATV, don’t force a square peg into a round hole.
“One of the biggest mistakes I see is taking something that works for your garden tractor, throwing it on an ATV and expecting it to work,” says Derrek Sigler. “Spend a little extra money to make sure you have quality components. Any time something breaks, there’s a high potential for injury.”
Adhere to weight limits and allow extra distance for stopping and turning. No ATV is built to turn on a dime, especially when pulling a farm implement.
Finally, do what Ed Spinazzola recommends: Take your time. You can use your machine to plant, weed and mow several acres, but always do so with care and caution. Use common sense every step of the way, and you should keep your ATV running smoothly for years — while living to hunt another day.
For Your Information
The All-Terrain Vehicle Safety Institute (ASI), a non-profit division of the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, offers RiderCourse, a fun training course for all experience levels (atvsafety.org). Most states and provinces offer similar safety courses. Contact ASI or your natural resources department for more information.