It’s fun, but is it safe?

CEWM-MR-3-It's fun 2by Sally Colby

Farm kids often have advantages over their suburban and urban peers when it comes to opportunities for learning about working with livestock and machinery. One of the most popular pieces of machinery among youth is the 4-wheeler, or ATV, but such vehicles are responsible for serious accidents every year.

To help both adults and youth understand the potential hazards with ATVs, Penn State ag engineers have created roll-over simulators. These simulators, which include a tractor cab and a full-size ATV, draw attention at events such as the Keystone Farm Show in York, PA and Penn State’s Ag Progress Days in Rock Springs, PA.

“The impetus for roll-over demonstrations is generated from an annual fatality report from the ag safety and health team,” said Bill Harshman, senior project associate in agricultural safety and health at Penn State University. “The numbers generate interest in what we see as the need to educate folks out in the field.”

Harshman says the simulators created to help tractor and ATV operators understand slope aren’t complicated. “It’s a hydraulic system on a tilt-table,” he said. “With 4-wheelers, manufacturers make a recommendation about the degree of slope that should not be exceeded. On some of the newer ATVs we see a decal that says not to exceed a 15 to 25 degree slope. On UTVs that have a passenger seat in the back, they show only a 15 degree slope on their decal because the center of gravity is higher with extra passengers.”

When the simulators are present at ag events, data is collected on individuals who try the slope demonstrations. “We’ve found that in about 600 to 800 responses, no matter the gender, age or experience, almost everyone is over-estimating the slope,” said Harshman. “That’s probably because they’re sitting on a machine and don’t have a reference point. But we think that over-estimating a slope is a good thing — if you tell me you’re on a 30-degree slope and you’re only on a 15-degree slope, you probably won’t go any steeper than that.”

Harshman says early ATVs, most of which were 3-wheelers, were particularly unsafe, but added that there are very few 3-wheelers in use today. “That dates back to a consent decree with Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in the mid-1970s,” he said. “We still see some of those around, but dealers aren’t selling them any more.” Harshman noted if there is increased awareness regarding product safety, such as the issue with 3-wheelers, the CPSC will approach that industry and seek voluntary compliance.

As a former high school ag teacher, Harshman noticed that non-farm kids who operated ATVs were the most likely to have accidents. “The farm kids treated the machine as a tool and not a toy,” he said. “Youth who use ATVs for farm work are usually moving at relatively low speeds. If you send kids out to do farm work with an ATV, it might be pulling a cart with milk replacer and they won’t be moving at a high rate of speed.” Harshman added that despite lower speeds, fatalities associated with ATVs do occur with routine farm work, usually on steep inclines during chores such as fence repair or weed spraying.

Harshman says he gets a lot of questions about the degree of slope that causes a rollover. “There isn’t really a good answer because it’s based on speed, topography and experience or inexperience of the operator,” he said. “The operator who has experience can go on a steeper slope if they drive slower and don’t steer up the hill, whereas the inexperienced person on flat ground going too fast and making a sudden turn would have the 4-wheeler roll over. The inexperienced person doesn’t recognize hazards as quickly as someone who has more experience.” One of the most common initial reactions for those who anticipate a rollover is to put a leg out in an attempt to stop the rollover. However, that action can easily result in a broken leg or life-threatening injury.

Despite the fact that ATVs are intended primarily for off-road use, many ATV fatalities are the result of accidents on open roads. “It’s a machine that is not designed for highway use,” said Harshman. “A machine can go very fast on the highway, but the knobby tires grip the road surface and can cause it to flip. You’re going at a higher speed, perhaps making a turn and there’s more friction, or grab, on the roadway.” Harshman added the ATV driver on the highway who glances over his shoulder to check for traffic behind may inadvertently mis-steer the vehicle and cause an accident. Dirt and gravel roads have a more uneven surface than paved surfaces, and there slipping hazards associated driving on those roads.
Harshman says about 50 percent of 4-wheeler fatalities among older teens and adults are alcohol-related. “It’s a fast machine out on the highway and a DUI situation, and if that machine flips on the road, you probably aren’t going to survive that,” he said.

Although the use of helmets is included in ATV safety standards, Harshman admits that it’s difficult to keep growing children properly fitted with appropriate helmets, which can be costly as they grow.

Studies of bicycle helmet use show that children who see parents using helmets while bike riding are more likely to imitate that behavior, so it follows that the same would hold true for ATV riders.

Harshman says statistics on ATV fatalities are high for young people because they’re operating an adult-size machine. His hope is that parents and grandparents will influence what their children are doing with the machine or perhaps consider purchasing a machine that’s appropriate for their child.

When it comes to reducing the overall risk of using an ATV, Harshman says, “If you do 100 percent of the approved practices, you’re as safe as you can be. Everything you take away from that reduces the safety factor. If you have a child using an ATV, you should be willing to provide a great deal of supervision until they’ve proven they can operate the ATV correctly.”

Penn State’s recommendations for youth ATV safety can be found online at extension.psu.edu/business/ag-safety/vehicles-and-machinery/atv-safety/e45

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