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How dangerous is off-roading?

Off-roading Safety Tips
Automakers design crash-test facilities, like this General Motors one, specifically to study the problem of rollover.
Automakers design crash-test facilities, like this General Motors one, specifically to study the problem of rollover.
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

One of the biggest concerns associated with off-roading is rollover. Practically all off-roading vehicles, from SUVs to ATVs, can roll over, and driving on unstable, off-road terrain only increases that chance.

In 2006, approximately 146,600 people visited an emergency room for ATV-related injuries, and an estimated 882 ATV riders died [source:]. The numbers, unfortunately, are going up. For instance, in 2001, an estimated 100,000 to 110,000 ATV-related injuries occurred [sources: New York Times,].

Be careful, then, of vehicles that don't quite fit the ATV mold, such as the Yamaha Rhino, a golf-cartlike utility terrain vehicle that was recalled in March 2009 after being linked to 46 deaths [source: BBC News]. Such vehicles sometimes don't have the necessary safety features that often accompany ATVs. Better yet, habitually check in with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission or for information about the latest recalls applicable to off-roading.

In motocross, some promoters have managed to make their tracks safer by modifying jumps and using more "flaggers," who signal other riders when a competitor has fallen down. Casual motocross riders also can make their off-roading safer in various ways. First, wear a helmet and other protective gear, such as goggles, knee and elbow pads, gloves, pants and boots. The helmet shouldn't be a basic bicycle helmet either; rather it should be certified by the Department of Transportation. Depending on where you live, wearing a helmet may be required by state law.

Second, on ATVs (and dirt bikes for that matter), make sure to ride alone -- that is, one person per vehicle. It's good to have other people around in case an accident occurs, but many ATVs aren't equipped to handle more than one passenger. Adding a passenger may limit the vehicle's handling ability and the driver's range of movement.

Third, ride off-road. ATVs are actually more dangerous and less stable when on paved roads.

Fourth, take a safety course through the ATV Safety Institute, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation or one of the numerous state and local organizations scattered throughout the United States. An ATV safety or training class can teach you how to ride in different environments and how to handle your vehicle properly. You'll also learn about your vehicle's limitations.

If you're driving a four-wheel drive SUV, your vehicle is probably designed to go off-road, but that doesn't mean that you're the star of a James Bond film. Drive slowly and watch for unstable, uneven or debris-strewn terrain. An SUV's high center-of-gravity works well for off-road driving, but it also means that the vehicle is more prone to rollovers.

For more information about off-roading and vehicle safety, explore the links on the next page.