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ATVs, UTVs Lead Wisconsin’s Motorized-Recreation Deaths

Updated: 3 days ago

Kids 17 and younger accounted for 28 (12%) of Wisconsin’s 229 ATV and UTV fatalities the past decade, according to records compiled by the Department of Natural Resources.


The DNR’s annual reports on motorized recreation also show the state protects youngsters on water better than on land. Of the state’s 256 boating-related deaths from 2007 through 2020, only 10 (2.6%) involved kids 17 and younger. But of Wisconsin’s 161 snowmobiling fatalities from 2011 through March 2020, 11 cases (7%) involved kids 17 and younger.


An unexplained oddity of boating-related youth deaths since 2006 is that 70% were girls. In contrast, females accounted for nine (32%) of the state’s 28 ATV/UTV youth fatalities the past decade, and four (36%) of the 11 snowmobile youth fatalities.


A review of the Wisconsin DNR’s annual reports on motorized recreation shows 574 fatalities from 2011 to the present. Of those deaths, ATV/UTVs accounted for 229 (40%); boats, 184 (32%); and snowmobiles, 161 (28%).


Further, of the 28 youth ATV/UTV fatalities from 2011 through mid-October 2020, 14 (50%) were children 12 or younger. That rate mirrors a nationwide study released last week that found kids younger than age 12 accounted for 46% of patients 17 and younger who were treated for nonfatal head and neck injuries in hospital emergency rooms from 1990 to 2014.


The national study was conducted by the Center for Injury Research and Policy, and the department of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital. The study’s researchers reviewed 25 years of data compiled by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which is maintained by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.


Wisconsin requires all children younger than 12 to wear a helmet at all times when riding an ATV/UTV unless it’s for farm work or driven on family-owned land. Further, children 12 to 18 must wear a helmet unless they’re hunting, fishing, working on a farm, or operating on the family’s land. Anyone born after Jan. 1, 1988, must pass a state-run safety training course to drive an ATV or UTV, unless they’re on the family’s land.


Wisconsin also recently outlawed passengers on ATVs unless they’re in a seat designed by the manufacturer for passenger use.


All-terrain vehicles (one seat) and utility-terrain vehicles (bench seat) continue to climb in popularity in Wisconsin. ATV registrations reached a record 321,201 in 2019, while UTV registrations hit a record 91,515.


ATV registrations in Wisconsin have increased every year since 2013, even as UTV registrations set sales/registration records 10 straight years. The DNR registered only 15 UTVs in 2010 when these off-road “passenger vehicles” were relatively new. Registrations aren’t final for 2020, but DNR data show 2019’s UTV totals increased 20% from 76,235 in 2018.


In contrast, DNR records show boat registrations hit a 10-year low of 607,829 in 2019, a 1.2% decline from 615,305 in 2018 and a 3.4% decline from 629,000 in 2011.


Even so, the increased deaths aren’t just because of more ATVs and UTVs on the landscape. Wisconsin’s UTV and snowmobile riders consistently generated the highest fatality rates much of the past decade. Fatality rates—defined as the number of deaths per 100,000 registered vehicles—show snowmobilers died at an 8.73 rate in 2019, while UTV riders died at a 15.74 rate in 2018. The state’s worst fatality rate for UTVs was 24.17 in 2013 when Wisconsin registered 5.5 times fewer UTVs (16,549) than in 2019 (91,515).


The highest fatality rate for ATVs since 2010 was 7.44 in 2017, the same year boating suffered its highest rate (4.0) the past decade.


Youth fatalities on ATVs and UTVs, however, might be declining in Wisconsin, dropping from an annual average of 3.2 deaths from 2011 to 2015, to 2.4 deaths from 2016 to the present. Even so, the state recorded four youth deaths in 2017 on ATV/UTVs, and four so far this year. The worst year the past decade was five youth deaths in 2013.


The national study of NEISS data also found that hospitals treated an average of over 11,000 teens and children annually for nonfatal neck and head injuries from ATV accidents from 1990 through 2014. Over 15% of the cases in the national study required hospital stays.


Most of the injuries (30%) resulted when the kids got thrown off the ATV, followed by crashes (19%) and rollovers (16%). Two injury categories—broken bones and concussions/closed-head injuries—each accounted for 33% of the injuries. (A closed-head injury means the patient suffered a hard blow to the head that did not break the skull.)


The nationwide study also found that ATVs riding on roadways were especially dangerous. Kids in those accidents were 1.5 times more likely to be hospitalized. Wisconsin forbids kids 11 and younger from driving ATVs on roads or even crossing roadways. Further, children 12 to 15 must be accompanied by an adult while driving on designated ATV routes, even if they have an ATV Safety certificate.


The American Academy of Pediatrics, however, believes states should enact even tougher restrictions. It recommends youths be at least 16—old enough to drive a car—before being allowed to drive ATVs and UTVs anywhere. The national study found that kids younger than 12 were more likely than teens to suffer broken bones and get injured when thrown from ATVs. Teens, however, were more likely to suffer concussions and closed-head injuries, and get hurt in rollovers.


“ATVs are powerful machines designed strictly for off-road use that require mature judgment, coordination, strength, and moment-to-moment decision making,” said Dr. Gary Smith, senior author of the nationwide study. “Adoption of safety recommendations outlined by the American Academy of Pediatrics would go a long way in preventing many pediatric ATV-related head and neck injuries.”

Wisconsin ATV/UTV Youth Fatalities

Year Total Deaths 17 & Younger

2011 16 3

2012 15 3

2013 22 5

2014 27 1

2015 20 4

2016 22 1

2017 27 4

2018 27 2

2019 22 1

2020 31 4

Total 229 28

ATVs and UTVs caused 40% of Wisconsin’s fatalities in motorized outdoor recreation the past decade, and youths 17 and younger made up 12% of ATV/UTV deaths.

— Nationwide Children’s Hospital photo

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