Among the prominent warnings on All-Terrain Vehicles is an image of a rider and a passenger encircled in red, and bisected with a slash mark: “Never Carry Passengers.” So why were a significant percentage of the patients seen and treated at the University of Iowa Hospital emergency room either passengers or drivers who had giving someone a ride?
Reducing deaths and injuries caused by a dangerous, but wildly popular product forces safety advocates and researchers to get creative. In 2011, physician Charles Jennissen and Gerene Denning of the University of Iowa’s Department of Emergency Medicine began closely parsing the mechanisms and contributing factors to ATV injuries and discovered that a fifth of the 345 patients entered into their trauma registry with ATV-related injuries from 2002-2009 were passengers or had passengers when the incident occurred. Passengers were less likely to have been wearing helmets. And passengers, the researchers noticed from the injury data, seemed to adversely affect the operation of the ATV – making it more prone to rollovers – especially backward rollovers. Rearward ejection and falls also happened more frequently if a passenger was present – and those victims had the worst head injuries.
ATVs are only built for one. Why were some seats long enough for two?
Last month, Jennissen and Denning, along with Hope Mullins of the Arkansas Children’s Hospital Injury Prevention Center, presented their research on ATV injury prevention to The Safety Institute’s day-and-a-half long conference, “A National Conversation of Injury Prevention.” The three researchers demonstrated how technology could be used to make a safer ATV and a safer rider. In addition, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commissioner Bob Adler spoke about the continuing hazard of off-road recreational vehicles in his lunchtime remarks.
“I believe that ATVs present what may be the single most unreasonable risk of injury of the products under CPSC jurisdiction at the moment,” he told the interdisciplinary gathering of engineers, attorneys, doctors, safety advocates and engineers.
Adler cited the most recent injury and fatality figures from the CPSC 880 deaths and 130,000 emergency room visits annually from 2004-2008, with about 25 percent of the deaths occurring among children younger than age 16. At the same time, ATV models have increased dramatically in weight and speed – adult models can speed at excess of 60 mph and weigh nearly a half a ton.
Adler noted that behind the death and injury toll is a flawed design that makes ATVs particularly prone to rollovers and tip-overs. ATVs have a high center of gravity to retain their suitability for off-road us, but manufacturers do not compensate by widening the wheel base, out of concern about affecting maneuverability.
“One would think, therefore, at a minimum, that manufacturers would go out of their way to advise caution and to warn ATV users about the serious inherent risks associated with the use of these machines,” Adler said. “Sadly, judging by their advertising, caution is the last thing manufacturers have in mind. In my humble opinion, ATV sales pitches are among the most irresponsible of any industry I have ever seen. If you doubt me, please go to the internet and look at how these machines are portrayed in official company ads. Almost without exception, riders are shown blazing through forests, climbing ridiculous inclines and splashing through streams at great speeds all without a care in the world. Oh, yes, if you look at the microscopic, virtually unreadable, disclaimers, you’ll see that these riders are professionals and that consumers should not necessarily try to replicate these stunts on their machines.”
Adler highlighted Jennisen and Denning’s research on seat length, passengers and their relationship to the driver’s ability to operate the ATV safely and to roll and tip-overs. ATVs require “active handling,” meaning that drivers must shift their weight depending on the terrain, to control the vehicle. For example, on a decline, the rider must extend his arms and move rearward towards the back of the seat edge to move his center of gravity behind the front tires and avoid a front rollover. On an incline, a rider must lean forward and bend his arms so that he can keep his weight forward, over the center of gravity and prevent a backwards rollover. Using computer-aided design, driver-simulated technology and volunteer riders, researchers were able to more completely study the dynamics of active handling.
Passengers complicate and even prevent these weight shifting requirements, Jennisen said. A passenger in front of the rider will not allow the rider to lean forward on an incline, and prevent the rider from moving back on the seat when heading downhill. Both scenarios increase the probability of a roll-over.
Despite this, many ATV seats are easily long enough to accommodate two occupants. The University of Iowa researchers measured 77 new ATVs using downloaded images and a Photoshop-based technology to measure the seats using a scale based on the wheelbase. They found that seat lengths for adult-sized vehicles ranged from 20-37inches, with 75 percent of the seat backs ending near or over the rear axle.
They concluded, “there are no industry-wide standards for seat length and placement or any apparent consistency in ATV seat design safety consideration. Both carrying passengers and use by under-age operators are major risk factors for ATV crashes and injuries. ATV manufacturers could improve safety by using standardized criteria for seat length and model appropriate seat placement, starting the seat further from handle grips. This would shorten ATV seats and discourage riders from engaging in these risky behaviors. Regulations may be needed to ensure seat design changes are incorporated throughout the industry.
Mullins and Denning also tackled the issue of making safer riders through targeted messaging
In Iowa, Denning started with a risk exposure survey taken among 4,684 children, ages 11-16. It revealed that 77 percent had ridden on an ATV, and that nearly 40 percent rode daily or weekly. Nearly all – 92 percent – had ridden with multiple riders; 82 percent had ridden on public roads and 64 percent almost never wore helmets. Almost two-thirds – 57 percent – reported having been in a crash. The Safety Tips for ATV Riders (STARS) program recruited 30 schools in urban, isolated and rural areas for participation. Took a baseline knowledge survey, conducted a safety information program that included demonstrations, and then measured students’ safety knowledge immediately after the program and one year later. Both the immediate and long term follow-up showed that students increased their safety knowledge and decreased unsafe behaviors. More students reported wearing their helmets, while fewer rode with passengers or on public roads. The number of students who reported having been in a crash dropped to 27 percent.
In Arkansas, the Multidisciplinary ATV Working Group, formed in 2001, looked at safety messaging among parents of children who rode ATVs. They surveyed 100 parents whose children rode ATVs for their perception of risk and then showed them computer-generated simulations of ATV dynamics – especially on vehicles with multiple riders. The simulations significantly changed parents’ perceptions. Among Caucasian parents, the percentage of those saying that ATVs were safe for children dropped from 36 percent to 21 percent. Among African American parents, the effect was more pronounced, from 27 percent to 3 percent who thought that ATVs were safe for children after watching the simulations.
Adler found inspiration in the work of Jennisen, Denning and Mullins. The combination of the injury and fatality data, the agreement among manufacturers that ATVs are only suitable for a single rider, and the inefficacy of warning labels, adds up, he says more decisive action by the CPSC:
“So, I conclude that a major safety step forward would be for the Commission either to persuade the industry to design their vehicles so that would-be passengers cannot ride on ATVs or to write a performance standard requiring ATV manufacturers to prevent passengers on their vehicles,” he said. “I don’t claim that barring passengers is the only step needed for improving ATV safety, but I do believe that we should not let the perfect defeat the good. I suspect that as long as ATVs are sold we will worry about the risks associated with them. But, until someone comes along with a better idea, I think we should do what we can with what we’ve got.”