29 September 1995

Toys they are

definitely not

ATVs can be fun but operated irresponsibly they are capable of causing serious injury and even death. Jeremy Hunt points out the danger areas

OVERTURNING is still the biggest cause of ATV accidents. But incorrect maintenance and irregular or non-existent safety checks are major contributors to incidents.

Serious injuries and fatalities continue to highlight the "cavalier attitude" towards farm bikes.

"They are not toys. The farm bike is a potentially dangerous working machine. Riders should be trained in handling skills and be conversant with all maintenance and safety procedures," says John Jones of Newton Rigg College of Agriculture, Penrith, Cumbria.

He is concerned that few ATV users take training courses but even more surprised that most operators manuals remain unopened and unread.

"Every ATV manual will give the maximum load carrying weight for that vehicle.

"Many people forget that the weight carried must include the weight of the rider. Although everyone should check their own manual, as a general rule its roughly 30kg (66lbs) on the front carrier and 60kg (132lbs) on the rear carrier.

"That comes as a surprise to many on our training courses at Newton Rigg. Its no wonder that so many accidents are linked to overloading or carrying a passenger on a bike designed for one rider."

But the style and manoeuvrability of the ATV encourages operators to take more risks. Those on training courses at the college have often disregarded the steepness of a slope that may have been relatively easy to go up but can prove treacherous in descent.

"The ATV does not feel as top heavy as it really is. Riders tackle steep slopes on the way up and can be in big trouble on the way down. But even on the ascent, with the wheels spinning, the rear brakes are applied and the bike can suddenly overturn backwards."

Too few riders follow the guidelines for power/weight ratio when towing. The trailer should weigh no more than twice the ATVs unladen weight for non-braked equipment and four times the unladen weight for braked trailed equipment. On slopes these ratios must be reduced.

"Too much weight on the hitch will make handling difficult and renders the front drive and brakes less effective. Too little weight or a negative weight makes the vehicle unsafe by affecting its stability."

Training staff

Although large farming businesses using several bikes are now keen to train staff, there is still a slow uptake from individual farmers.

But Mr Jones says: "The majority have already developed a lot of very bad habits many of which pose a safety risk."

"Incorrect riding technique is a major problem. A lot of difficulties are caused by turning because there is a tendency, on a right hand turn, to swing the steering into the corner and lean the body weight into the turn as on a motorbike.

"But the shortened wheel base of the right-hand-side wheels and the forces of the cornering manoeuvre, will cause the bike to rear up. So when tackling a right hand corner the body weight should be moved on to the left-hand foot rest, leaning the body into the right.

"It seems a strange technique but these are four-wheel vehicles not two-wheel bikes. Its a lot less difficult to turn a bike over following that principle than it is if you follow what comes naturally."

Helmets are not compulsory for ATV riders though strongly recommended in all circumstances. Course participants at Newton Rigg are also encouraged to wear protective clothing.

Safe routes, those avoiding terrain or slopes that could prove dangerous at any time or when ground conditions change, should also be planned and adhered to.

But apart from the big improvements needed in operator skills, the preparation for work and general care of ATVs is still sadly lacking.

"Most users treat them like the farm dog. They are always there when needed and yet they receive very little attention in between.

"I have seen bikes under two years old that have had to be written off simply because they have been totally neglected."

Pre-ride checks are recommended. Engines should be allowed to "tick over" until warm to prevent stalling in a potentially dangerous situation.

Cables should be checked so that a turn of the handlebars does not lead to an increase in acceleration, particularly when carrying a load on the front. The emergency stop button should also be checked as well as brakes, oil and fuel.

Those on training courses at Newton Rigg are taught the importance of shock absorber adjustment.

"If these adjustments are not carried out correctly they can completely throw all handling techniques.

"If one shock absorber is set soft and the other set hard the bike can become a dangerous machine to handle," notes Mr Jones.

Tyre pressures are another important safety aspect highlighted during training courses. The tyre pressures of ATVs tend to be about 5 psi which demand a special tyre pressure gauge.

"A pound or two difference in a tyre can have a severe effect on steering and can put the driver in a dangerous situation. Ideally pressures should be checked daily because unlike a motor car, where a loss of pressure is often detected visually, the small loss in an ATV tyre cannot be spotted and can have a significant effect on the machines handling."

John Jones checks the shock absorbers. Unevenly adjusted – hard one side, soft on the other – they can make an ATVdangerous to handle.

How not to do it…ignoring the absence of any protective clothing, this rider is clearly heading for a fall and the very real prospect of serious injury.