Kids and ATVs

Getting them started on the right foot—to ride safe

Story by Steve Casper, Nov. 19, 2007

Off-road riding is a great family activity. It’s a chance for young people to learn new skills and develop self-confidence, and parents find exploring the out-of-doors a wonderful way to spend time with their kids.

Along with the fun and adventure, off-roading involves special responsibilities for parents and young people. Even the smallest ATV is relatively heavy and should be respected and never treated like a toy.

Is your youngster ready to ride? Parents know their kids best and are in the best position to decide whether they are ready to ride. Readiness can vary widely from one person to another, and there’s no sure way to determine it. However, the following guidelines can help you reach a decision.

Are they big enough?

Alerts, tips and anecdotes

Tip
Throttle limiters make learning safer

Most mini ATVs feature throttle limiters that make your youngster’s first rides considerably safer. The limiters are a very simple device—they’re just a screw that restricts the thumb throttle and can be adjusted to virtually any speed.

As you watch your child progress with his or her riding skills, you can simply dial-in more speed. Some mini ATVs also come with a kill switch tether, which is a rope that the parent or instructor holds on to as he or she jogs alongside the rider. If there’s any indication that the child is loosing control, the adult simply pulls the rope and kills the engine.

Alert!
Keep kids away from hillclimbs

Climbing hills on ATVs is something that should only be attempted by experienced riders. Even though a child may be very proficient at stopping and turning their ATV on flat ground, things can get dicey on hilly trails. If a child doesn’t make it up the hill, and they aren’t skilled enough to stop or turn the ATV, it will start rolling backwards and in many cases begin to tumble all the way to the bottom. You don’t want to see your child in that scenario.

Anecdote
Always start with plenty of open space

The first time children are let loose on a quad, one thing that often seems to happen is that if they do happen to panic and lose control of the machine, they’ll somehow manage to plow into the nearest large obstacle.

The way to avoid this scenario is fairly simple. Choose an area for the first ride that is as wide open as you can find. Smooth, loose dirt or grass is best. Don’t let them ride on any paved sections, as that affects the handling of the machine. Also set up cones or empty soda cans to make a small oval and have your child practice staying on course. Begin by simply working on starting and stopping. Once you’re past those first ride jitters, the chances of a panic-type accident is virtually eliminated.

To ride off-road safely, a person must be large enough and strong enough to easily reach and operate the controls. To see how a young rider measures up, first have him or her sit on the vehicle you are considering. Are their arms long enough to turn the handlebars all the way to the right and to the left? Are their hands big enough and strong enough to work the brake levers, throttle and other hand controls? Can their feet comfortably reach and operate the brake and other foot controls?
 Next, have the young person stand up on the footrests while he or she holds onto the handgrips. See if there is at least three inches between the vehicle seat and the youngster’s seat of the pants. A rider needs at least three inches of clearance so they can rise off the seat for comfort, balance and visibility.

Coordination and judgment

Off-road riders need good hand-eye coordination, agility and a sense of balance. If your son or daughter is good at riding a bicycle, skateboarding, playing baseball or soccer, he or she will probably do fine on an ATV.

 Because riders need to think quickly and react appropriately, it’s important to ask yourself if your youngster analyzes problems and comes to logical conclusions. Do they understand the relationship between unsafe actions and consequences? Do they follow instructions? Do they understand that people have different abilities and accept their own limits?

 Try to be honest as you evaluate riding readiness. If a young person is too small, has poor coordination, takes unnecessary risks or doesn’t make good judgments, they need more time to mature before riding off-road.

What should kids wear?

 Before a youngster rides off-road, you’ll need to provide them with a few basic safety items, and make sure they wear them on every ride. The most valuable piece of safety equipment is a high-quality motorcycle helmet with a label showing approval by the US department of transportation (DOT). The helmet should also fit snugly and be securely fastened before riding.

Other important safety wear includes goggles, sturdy boots, gloves, long pants, and a long-sleeved shirt or jacket.

How much training and supervision will they need?

 Providing good instruction is a key responsibility of parents. As a first step, you should read the owner’s manual together with your son or daughter, and make sure he or she understands the instructions and cautions.

 Next will come a period of hands-on training and practice. Whether you serve as a primary instructor or arrange for a qualified teacher, plan to attend all instruction and practice sessions. This may take some time, but no one is better able than you to evaluate your child’s progress.

 Remember, even after young people become skilled off-road riders they still need adult supervision on every ride. If you can’t personally ride with your youngster, you’ll need to make sure a qualified and caring adult will be there.

Picking the right-sized ATV
 Here’s what you’ll see posted at nearly every dealership in the US:

• ATVs with an engine size less than 70cc are recommended for youngsters 6 years or older.
• ATVs with an engine size 70 to 90cc are recommended for youngsters 12 years or older.
• ATVs with an engine size greater than 90cc are recommended for people at least 16 years old.

In a voluntary agreement with the government dating back to the late 1980s, the dealers, in fact, can’t knowingly sell an ATV to a family that plans on disobeying age and engine size limitations.
 However, common sense tends to muddy the waters on this particular topic. On the one hand, even though the child is of the recommended age for a particular ATV, not all youngsters have the strength, skills, or judgment needed to operate the vehicle safely. On the other hand, there are many teenagers under 16 who, due to their size and maturity, are fully capable of safely operating ATVs larger than 90cc. The final decision of course is up to the parents and, as with any kind of risk sport, safety should be the number one priority when choosing the proper-sized ATV for your child.

ATV safety training for youngsters

The Best Way to Learn

Like the training for adults, children are also eligible to take the ATV RiderCourse that is offered by the ATV Safety Institute (ASI). Courses regularly take place at various locations throughout the US. If you are buying a new ATV, your child may be eligible for free training; otherwise there is a modest fee.

During the course, riders will learn how to do a proper pre-ride inspection, ride in a variety of conditions and negotiate obstacles. You’ll also get the latest information on protective gear, local laws about ATV use and finding places to ride in your area.

If you are buying a gift ATV for your child, you can complete the ATV RiderCourse on an adult-sized ATV before taking delivery of the youth model, and be better prepared to supervise your child. 

The ATV RiderCourse is conducted only on ATVs of the size recommended for the rider’s age. For riders younger than 16, a parent or guardian should be present at the training site. For riders younger than 12, a parent must be present during the entire course. 

State laws

Laws regarding children on ATVs vary considerably from state to state. Some states are not regulated at all when it comes to youngsters on ATVs, while others have quite a few rules and regulations. In most cases, the rules apply only to riders who are utilizing public lands and trails. For example, in California, operators under 18 years of age must either have an ATV safety certificate of his or her own, or be supervised by an adult with an ATV safety certificate. In addition, a parent or guardian must directly supervise children under 14 years old. California also states that the ATV should be of the appropriate size as labeled by the manufacturer.

 The same rules that govern adults in California, such as always wearing a helmet, not riding double and using a safety whip (flag) in the dunes, also apply to kids.

 Before you go riding on public lands, check with your local land managers such as parks and recreation, forest service, department of natural resources or fish and game officials to see what laws govern you and your children while riding ATVs in your area.