One of the biggest selling points New Hampshire uses to promote ATV riding is that it’s something the whole family can enjoy. But as the sport grows in popularity, health and safety officials are growing concerned – saying the state’s laws are ignoring the serious danger these machines pose to kids.
This story is part of the series Off-Road, which looks at the impact of motorized recreation in New Hampshire. Click here to see all the series stories.
She may be only three years old, but Everly Lavertu has already logged plenty of miles on New Hampshire’s ATV trails – in her car seat, that is.
“I like the big puddles now,” she explained one morning, in between trips around Jericho Mountain State Park with her parents. “When I was really tiny and a little girl, I didn’t like them.”
Everly’s dad, Ryan Lavertu, says they love being able to buckle into their off-road vehicle and explore the scenery together. And they try to make sure they do so safely.
“Ever since she was about 18 months, she’s been in it,” Ryan Lavertu said. “She’s always been in a helmet, glasses, dust protector for her face. It’s pretty important for us… You don’t know what else is out there.”
On that day at Jericho Mountain State Park, the Lavertus were just one of many families with small children hitting the trails. In New Hampshire and plenty of other states, it’s not uncommon to see teens or even toddlers in these vehicles.
“We’ve seen everything,” says Dennis Etchells, an OHRV program officer with New Hampshire Fish and Game. “Our wardens in the North Country have seen newborns all the way to moms literally breastfeeding their children on the trail.”
Chris Gamache, the chief of New Hampshire’s trails bureau, says there’s nothing wrong with parents taking kids out on ATVs — as long as they take the right precautions.
“Some people will argue kids three and four shouldn’t be out riding,” Gamache said. “Growing up, my kids learned to ride snowmobiles when they were three and four, and four-wheelers. It’s part of the education process.”
It’s not just the state sending this message. Off-road manufacturers market vehicles for kids as young as six to drive on their own.
At the same time, leading health and safety groups have serious concerns about allowing kids on these vehicles. The Consumer Product Safety Commission says kids under age 6 “should never be on any ATV – either as a driver or passenger.” The American Academy of Pediatrics says no one under the age of 16 should be riding in – let alone driving – all-terrain vehicles of any kind.
Theresa Epp, the pediatric trauma nurse coordinator at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, said their emergency room sees the damage these vehicles can do up close. Epp said they’ve treated kids for a range of serious injuries resulting from ATV accidents, including: “Concussions. Skull fractures. Facial fractures. Vertibral fractures, so fractures to their spine. Kidney, spleen, liver lacerations. Pelvic fractures, and injuries to the small and large intestine.”
Many cases were “poly-trauma,” she said, meaning the patient sustained multiple injuries from the same incident. A lot of the cases they’ve seen also involved ATVs rolling onto kids who were either driving on their own or riding with someone else.
“Almost every case I looked at, they were not helmeted – so, no head protection whatsoever,” Epp said. “And there’s no protection at all, really. You know, you’re just sitting on top of this heavy machine which is, unfortunately, pretty unstable.”
New Hampshire law does require everyone under age 18 to at least wear a helmet and eye protection when riding an ATV. The state doesn’t place any limits on how old you have to be to drive or ride inside one, at least not on private property or state trails.
“We created our OHRV statutes where people had little four-wheelers with a saddle and handlebar in mind,” Rep. Steven Smith, chair of the House transportation committee, explained. “And they haven’t really been updated since, to keep pace with the industry. Now, some of these things are literally as big as my car.”
Smith has spent lots of time studying the gaps in the state’s OHRV laws – and, he said, there are many.
When it comes to the rules for kids, Smith would be open to setting a minimum age for riding in traditional, saddle-style ATVs. But he thinks the law should make a distinction between those vehicles and larger, more enclosed models.
“If the vehicle already has effective safety restraints in it, we’re considering waiving the helmet requirement when you’re in one of those, because you don’t need it when you’re in car or a pickup truck,” Smith said.
But here’s another thing about off-road vehicles in New Hampshire: They’re often driven on real roads, too.
As the law stands, kids as young as 12 can operate ATVs on approved New Hampshire roads without a license, as long as they’ve taken a safety course – which can be completed in person or online. (The state’s guidelines say 12- to 14-year-olds driving on public roads have to be “accompanied” by a licensed adult. But “accompanied” is defined as, “when a person is within sight and when actual physical direction and control can be effected.”)
On this issue, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is unequivocal: They say off-road vehicles aren’t safe for paved streets of any kind, no matter the driver’s age. Lots of ATVs also come with warnings not to drive them on paved surfaces, because the tires aren’t built for it.
And even though the practice is legal in New Hampshire (and a number of other states), it still keeps Dennis Etchells, with Fish and Game, up at night.
“Our biggest fear is the inevitable child being run over by a truck,” Etchells said. “We’ve got heavy populated areas where these machines are being operated amongst conventional motor vehicles – they don’t need to be inspected, they don’t need to have blinkers – by children and teenagers.”
This hits home for Etchells, in part, because he personally reviews the reports for all of the ATV and snowmobile accidents in the state. Since the state started allowing ATVs on public roads in some counties a few years ago, there have only been a handful of crashes with motor vehicles – and he’s grateful for that.
But Etchells gets worried when he sees towns across the state looking to expand road access, especially given the state’s lax rules for teen drivers.
“We’re in it just as much as everyone else,” Etchells said. “Would we like to see it all in the woods and on trails? Yes. Would we like to see it off the roads? Yes. But we do know there are issues that… That’s not going to happen.”
The state’s laws in this area, like a lot of its rules on ATV use, are still a work in progress.