Atlanta, GA,
11:15 AM

ATV Safety Requires All the Gear, All the Time

By Emma Harrington
Injury Prevention and Education Director, Shepherd Center

When former Olympic swimmer Amy Van Dyken injured her spinal cord in summer 2014, she brought national attention to an often under-recognized hazard. Van Dyken was riding her all- terrain vehicle (ATV) in a parking lot when she hit a curb and flew over an embankment. She was found conscious, but struggling to breathe and unable to feel her legs. On this particular ride, she was not wearing her helmet or protective riding gear.

Van Dyken’s story is not uncommon. In 2014, ATV accidents caused an estimated 674 deaths. Too often, it takes a high-profile catastrophic injury to call attention to a longstanding hazard.

Introduced in the 1980s, ATVs are a relatively new commodity originally designed for agricultural settings. Having morphed into outdoor recreational vehicles, it is not surprising that the majority of ATV deaths and injuries still occur in rural areas.

ATVs have a high center of gravity and unstable design, so much so that the majority of injuries are caused by rollovers. The sheer weight of these vehicles, which can be up to 600 pounds, combined with their propensity to flip, make them dangerous to an untrained rider. Four wheels do not ensure stability, nor do they always deliver on that perceived sense of safety. This false sense of security can lead to devastating brain and spinal cord injuries.

Males are at a much higher risk for ATV-related injuries than females, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Children are also more vulnerable, despite being a small fraction of licensed ATV drivers. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2015, there were an estimated 97,200 ATV-related, emergency department-treated injuries in the United States. An estimated 28 percent of these involved children younger than 16 years of age.

When it comes to ATVs, legislation and education are lacking. The most progressive states sanction youth aged 16 and above to drive ATVs once they have taken a safety class and received a special license. In Georgia, our law only states that ATVs cannot be driven on public beaches. The issue of public versus private domains becomes pertinent when helmets are only mandated on public land. It is then up to the discretion of the rider or parent as to whether helmets are mandatory.

Van Dyken’s injury has been repeatedly referred to as an accident, but when injuries are preventable, is that the correct term? Taking risks is part of living, and while we ought to live without fear of catastrophic consequence, we must arm ourselves with education (and helmets) and aim to minimize our risk. Knowledge that leads to better decision-making is the key to prevention. In terms of ATVs, let’s spread the knowledge and use an old motorcycle adage:  All the gear, all the time.

Here are a few more safety tips:

  • Before riding, attend a local ATV driver’s safety course.
  • Children under 16 should not drive ATVs.
  • ATVs are intended for single riders and should only have one person on them at a time.  
  • Wear an approved helmet with an eye shield every time; there is no ride so short that a helmet is unnecessary.
  • Wear non-skid, close-toed shoes.
  • Avoid colliding with other vehicles by staying off of paved roads at all times.

For more information on Shepherd Center's Injury Prevention Program, visit

EMMA HARRINGTON is the director of injury prevention and education services at Shepherd Center. Previously, Emma started the injury prevention program at Grady Memorial Hospital in the Trauma Department. She holds a master of education degree in international education policy from Harvard University. Originally from Boston, Emma is a licensed social studies teacher.

Works Cited (accessed 7/28/14).

Center, ATV Safety Information. Consummer Product Safety Commission. (accessed 2014).

Garland, Sarah. 2011 Annual Report of ATV-Related Deaths and Injuries. Bethesda, MD: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 2013.

Hanseen, James, and Douglas Shinkle. Transportation Review All-Terrain Vehicle Safety. Denver, Colorado: National Conference of State Legislatures, 2013.


About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.