Good Time Gone Bad
STAFF SGT. ADAM JOHNSON
Aviation Center Logistics Command
Fort Rucker, Alabama
One of the bad things about off-roading is you never know when a good time might turn into a nightmare. If you’ve ever left the relative safety of the asphalt on two, three or four wheels, you know exactly what I am talking about. Here’s how my good time went bad.
It was summertime in Savannah, Georgia, and I was riding ATVs with a friend in an undeveloped area of a subdivision. Typical of the South, it was really hot with high humidity and no clouds or breeze. Those conditions made it almost unbearable to wear personal protective equipment, so all I had on was shorts, a T-shirt and some sneakers I didn’t mind getting muddy. I did have on my sand goggles because of the dust, but that was it — no helmet, pads or gloves.
The construction from Phase 1 of the subdivision left huge mounds of dirt on the backside of the neighborhood, where Phase 2 was supposed to be built but never happened because of the housing crash. The area made for a great ATV riding track and everyone knew about it. There were trails everywhere in the area.
On this day we decided to climb one of the big hills. It was almost vertical on one side, probably about 75 degrees. The other side was less steep, like a road going through the mountains where you have to use a low gear to prevent from burning up your brakes. I chose to ride up the steep side. I wasn’t worried because I’d already done it a few times in the past. I knew to shift my weight forward and how to react if I started rolling backward.
I was about halfway up the hill when the trouble began. Unbeknownst to me, someone dug into the path, creating holes I couldn’t see from the ground. As the front tires rode over the holes, it seemed like everything would be fine. However, when the back tires dropped into the holes, all of my forward momentum stopped.
So there I was, about 20 feet up, stuck on the side of this hill with no safety gear to protect me. I applied the front brakes and hung on as I tried to figure out how to get out of this situation. Suddenly, the center of gravity shifted and the front of my ATV started to slowly flip backward. Fortunately, I was able to jump off before the ATV landed on me as it tumbled to the bottom of the hill.
Pushing the limits on your ATV can have disastrous results. Sharp turns at high speeds, downhill rides and, like my accident, uphill climbs are the most common ATV crash scenarios. Uphill climbs are particularly dangerous because they come with the additional risk of the ATV tumbling onto its rider. That’s why ATV manufacturers, trainers and pretty much anyone else dealing with off-roading will tell you to make sure you always use your PPE. Without it, riders are at risk for serious injuries. Uphill crashes are exceedingly common in two situations: when the ATV doesn’t gain enough speed and inertia to go the whole length of the ramp or hill and stops halfway to the top, prompting the rider to throttle harder; and when the operator is improperly positioned on the seat. Of course, these two are often combined, making the risk of a crash even greater.
When losing speed uphill, there is, however, a split second which may mean the difference between crashing hard — possibly with the ATV on top of you — and making it back down safely. This is the moment when the rider should realize there is nothing more he or she can do, and throttling harder will only flip the ATV. Passing that moment is extremely easy, so it’s often only experienced or very lucky riders who manage to avoid crashing.
I was lucky I wasn’t seriously injured that day. My close call gave me a new appreciation for riding safely. Since then, I also wear all my PPE any time I go off-roading no matter the temperature. You should too. Have fun out there and ride safe!
ATV Safety Institute’s Golden Rules
- Always wear a Department of Transportation-compliant helmet, goggles, long sleeves, long pants, over-the-ankle boots and gloves.
- Never ride on paved roads except to cross when done safely and permitted by law; another vehicle could hit you. ATVs are designed to be operated off road.
- Never ride under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
- Never carry a passenger on a single-rider ATV and no more than one passenger on an ATV specifically designed for two people.
- Ride an ATV that’s right for your age.
- Supervise riders younger than 16; ATVs are not toys.
- Ride only on designated trails and at a safe speed.
Take a hands-on ATV RiderCourse and the free online E-Course. Visit ATVSafety.org or call 1-800-887-2887 to find the ATV RiderCourse nearest you.