Tuesday, September 18, 2018
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Keeping kids on ATVs safe
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The Minnesota DNR and local trail groups are working to teach kids how to ride ATVs safely. Although safety advocates applaud the effort, some say kids under 16 shouldn't ride ATVs. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
The number of all terrain vehicles in Minnesota is on the rise. 10 years ago there were fewer than 100,000 ATVs registered in the state, today that number has jumped to nearly 300,000. With more ATVs comes more accidents and many times it's kids who are the ones that get hurt. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is working to better educate young riders but some safety advocates say kids and ATVs just don't mix.

Olivia, Minn. — When the DNR's Lt. Dave Rodahl sat down with his colleagues and looked at Minnesota's ATV accident statistics, they noticed a disturbing trend. In the 1980s and early 1990s, just a few people were killed each year while riding ATVs. In the late 1990s that number started to creep into the teens. And then last year, a record 24 Minnesotans were killed in ATV accidents. But what really bothered Lt. Rodahl is that five of those killed were under the age of 16. When young riders take a spill on one of these large, powerful machines, there's a good chance they'll be seriously hurt.

"These 600 pound machines move very quickly. When they're tumbling, they roll hard and cause a lot of injuries," Rodahl said.

The DNR and local authorities are cracking down on ATV violations across the state, and working to educate riders about the rules of four-wheeling.

According to Rodahl, driving an ATV on a road is one of the most common mistakes young riders make. It's dangerous and illegal if they're under 16.

"If we could control that little piece of it, and keep these youngsters off the roads and out of the right-of-ways, we could cut their accident statistics in half," he said.

Childrens' safety advocates take it further and question whether any child should even ride an ATV. Erin Peterson heads up the Safe Kids Coalition at the Minnesota Safety Council.

"We recommend that kids under the age of 16 never operate or ride all terrain vehicles of any size, including youth sized ATVs. Children under 16 don't always have the abilities, the strength and skill to operate an ATV," Peterson said.

But Peterson knows that kids under 16 will ride ATVs. So she tells parents to make sure their kids are trained to ride safely.

That's happening on a warm spring evening here in Olivia, Minn. In a freshly cut, grassy field behind an ATV dealership, five kids ranging in age from 12 to 14 are riding through an obstacle course. It's part of a DNR sanctioned safety class being put on by a local ATV group. Ironically these vehicles carry a warning sticker advising against kids under 16 from riding an ATV. But in Minnesota anyone who's over the age of 12 is legally able to ride on public land. And if they're younger, there's nothing to stop them from riding on private property.

13-year-old Jordan Polesky from Redwood Falls has just finished the obstacle course on his green ATV.

Wearing a bright yellow racing jersey, with pants to match, motocross boots and a helmet, he looks like a serious rider. Polesky says this class has taught him a lot about riding a four-wheeler, something he's already been doing for a few years.

"I go up to my cousin's cabin a lot, and we ride up there a lot, and I can ride my own four-wheeler now," Polesky said.

His mom Lori Polesky is also here. She's glad her son has learned more about the rules he should follow. She's confident in his skills.

"He's really pretty careful, so I'm not too worried. Not yet anyway. I have a 16-year-old son, and I worry more about him than I do my about my 13-year-old," she said.

The idea, according to the ATV trainers, is to get to these kids before they develop bad habits like driving too fast. Gene Runck is a member of a local ATV group helping with the class.

"They see clips on TV with motocross jumps. That's all well and good in its place, but the type of riding we want to advocate with these kids is a safe, slower fun ride," Runck said.

Safe and slow is something that can be hard to get across to teenagers anxious to ride. But the folks here say the future of the sport they love depends on teaching these kids how to ride safely.

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