While ATVs and UTVs are very similar in some ways, there could not be a clearer distinction between them, than when it comes to safety.
In one, you’re somewhat enclosed, protected from the environment with a roll cage over the top, in the other you have none of those things.
So, which one is safer to ride?
In short, it is safer to ride a UTV. In 2018, a grand total of six people were reported having died in some sort of UTV accident. That’s down from 12 people the previous year. But if we compare that with the 300 people who died in 2018 from ATV related accidents, we can see that UTVs are overall, much much safer.
Again, we must obtain some perspective and compare that with the nearly 5,000 people who died in motorcycle accidents in 2017.
These numbers also have a lot to do with each vehicle’s safety features. UTVs come equipped with seat belts, roll bars, and sometimes doors and windshields, whereas ATVs have none of those things.
If there are accidents, which there always will be, you’ll be safer inside a UTV than on an ATV.
What Factors Contribute to an ATV/UTV’s Safety
As much as we try to protect ourselves in our daily commuters with airbags, and rigorously tested safety features, we can never achieve some vehicle that is perfectly safe.
Even in seemingly controlled areas like highways and city streets, things go wrong and people get into accidents. Now imagine how many things can go wrong off roading, one small slip could mean life or death sometimes.
That being said, we can see that ATV’s much larger death rate is due to many different factors. Chief amongst them, however juvenile, has to be how much “cooler” ATVs are than UTVs.
I’m not saying that one is objectively cooler than the other, simply stating a fact that kids will likely find an ATV more appealing than a UTV; they’re more adventurous and exciting.
Most likely because of the danger. We could spend time analyzing what that says about us as a species, but I figure we’ll let sleeping dogs lie.
Other factors to consider is the center of gravity for each vehicle. A UTV’s wheel base is obviously much wider than an ATV’s, almost double the width in some cases. A UTV also sits a little bit lower in comparison with an ATV.
What does this mean? This means that if both vehicles went around the same sharp bend at the same speeds, the ATV would be far more likely to roll over.
Even if they were equally likely, the UTV would still be safer because of its ROPS, or Roll Over Protection System. An ATV doesn’t have the protective safety net that comes factory installed in most UTVs.
Engine sizes don’t differ very much between the two vehicles, but what does differ is how much each vehicle weighs in total. The average weight of an ATV is between 220 pounds, (for a child sized ATV) and 1170 pounds; whereas UTVs weigh on average between 1,200 and 1,600 pounds.
What does this mean? This means that ATVs are able to reach greater speeds and accelerate faster than UTVs, leaving more room for accidents by untrained riders.
Another way to say it would be they’re both very different sizes but have roughly the same engine under the hood. One can be driven at literally breakneck speeds, while the other one can drive dangerously fast but cannot go quite as fast because it’s carrying all of these protective measures with it.
This brings us to the most important factor when considering the safety of a vehicle. The most prominent reason for accidents in any vehicle is user error. We humans make a lot of mistakes and we’re really good at it.
If we can do our best, to ride safely and consciously then both of these machines we’re comparing become much much safer. That being said, there are several ways we can make each machine even safer than they already are.
ATV Safety Devices and Equipment
Riding an ATV can of course be very dangerous. You need to take the proper precautions if you want to enjoy your off roading experience and not end up in the emergency room.
Here are some of the most basic precautions you can, and should take to protect yourself any time you go off roading on your ATV.
- Quality motorcycle helmet – A good quality motorcycle helmet is a must on an ATV. You don’t have a cab or seatbelts or a roll bar to protect you from the environment or a crash. Instead you must carry your protection with you wherever you go.
- Eye protection – Some ATVs have a top speed close to 80 miles per hour. If a branch catches you in the eye at that speed you’d be wishing you had eye protection.
- Gloves – While riding an ATV, if it doesn’t have protective covers to protect your hands, they are exposed. While whipping around corners you could cut a corner too close and run next to a nettle bush, or an old tree branch, these could be nasty if you didn’t have gloves on.
- Boots – The same principle applies to your feet too. There is nothing between your feet and the open trail where anything could go wrong. Basic foot protection is a must.
- Long pants – Your legs are arguably in more danger than your feet. Your feet at least sit behind the front wheels, your legs on the other hand, are out in the open, anything you drive through, your legs are going to get the brunt of it. It’s a good idea to wear long pants.
In addition to this basic safety gear, there are a few items that you can modify your ATV with to make it a little bit safer.
- Windshield – While it may not be as effective as a UTV’s windshield, an added windshield can come up about two feet, and spread over the handlebars to protect your fingers and face from being whipped by a passing branch.
- Engine-kill safety cord – This device is essentially a kill switch. You attach a cord from your person to the kill switch, so that if you do happen to fall off, the ATV can’t go running off without you.
- Safety flags – While they might not protect you from the environment, or during a crash, a neon orange safety flag can let other riders know where you are and thus avoid collisions. There are even LED rods that you can mount to the back of your ATV so that you can announce your position in the dark.
All of these are the gear you can use to protect yourself when riding an ATV. But the best protection of all comes from your awareness of not only your own abilities, but an awareness of your environment.
The best way to keep safe, while it sounds simple and silly, is to be aware and be careful.
UTV safety devices and equipment
Making a comparison of the safety features between ATVs and UTVs, the UTVs wins in a landslide. UTVs come with more safety features from the factory than ATVs have available to purchase.
These are just some of the most basic additional modifications one can make to their UTV to make them a little bit safer than they already are.
- Windshields – When whizzing down the trail behind someone there could be loose rocks flying straight toward your head. It’s times like that that a good, strong windshield is in order. They come in models that can easily clip onto the front frame of your UTV, so that if you enjoy riding with the wind in your face, you can detach it if you’d like. Though I might not suggest it.
- Full doors – From the factory, UTVs usually either come with half doors, or no doors at all. Installing full doors onto your UTV can protect you from whipping branches as you drive down the trails.
- LED Headlights – I don’t think anyone would disagree with me when I say that seeing where you’re going is one of the most important factor when it comes to safety.
- Mounted Light bar – The more light the better, that’s why this forward mounted light bar is a great addition if you’re planning on doing any night driving.
- Headache rack – A protective layer of metal that sits behind the driver/passenger seats, most often used on models with a truck bed. This device makes sure that your cargo stays in the back where it belongs, while maintaining your line of sight.
- Four point racing harness – UTVs have factory installed over the shoulder seat belts, but sometimes, especially in faster racing UTVs you need some more protection. Racing harnesses hold you in place from all sides, making sure that you’re that you’re nice and secure inside your UTV.
- Door Nets – If installing full on doors isn’t your style, or perhaps you prefer the breeze of an open door is your prerogative, door nets clip into place and keep you from falling out, should anything happen to your seatbelts.
- Flags – Again, flags are useful to let those around you know where you are. A common alternative to the typical orange flag are lengths of LEDs on rods that stick up over top of the UTV. This allows people to know where you are even in the dark.
There are also the basic precautions that you would also take with you on an ATV. Things such as a good helmet, eye protection, driving suits, gloves etc. These items should be worn any time you’re off roading.
Depending on your local laws, it may be required that you wear a helmet while operating a UTV, whether on the trail or on the road. Laws do differ from state to state, so be sure to check with your local law enforcement to find out what the regulations are in your state.
All the above information can paint ATVs and terribly dangerous, and UTVs as impervious to any attack. The reality is that these vehicles are only ever as dangerous as the way they’re driven.
If someone is prepared, dressed in the proper gear – especially a helmet; they’re aware of their own capabilities behind the wheel or handlebars, and they stay within the bounds of their abilities while they ride, things are likely to turn out just fine
Depending on where you live, there are probably laws dictating the best practices while riding ROVs (Recreational Off-Highway Vehicles).
Almost half of the states, have laws saying that you cannot drive ATVs or UTVs on highways or city streets, limiting their usage to county roads and trails.
This makes sense when you realize that four of the six UTV deaths last year were on the highway, not on off road adventures.
Each state does have its own laws pertaining to ROVs, and you should consult your local law enforcement to confirm what’s legal and illegal in your specific state.
That being said, there are general guidelines that apply to most states that can help us understand the intricacies of the safety side of ATVs and UTVs.
Many states require that good quality helmets be worn while operating an ATV, and even some require helmets be worn while operating UTVs.
The helmets themselves are required to be much stronger than regular bicycle helmets. And while these types of helmets are more expensive to acquire, their strength to resist blows far outweighs that of a typical bicycle helmet.
Another law that applies to almost all the states, is that an ROV’s engine is limited to having no larger than a 1000cc engine. CCs stands for cubic centimeters and refers to the amount of space inside the engine’s pistons and thus the amount of gas that can be fired at any given time.
This limitation bottle necks the machine’s power. In other words a 2000 cc engine would of course be twice as powerful and have roughly twice as much horsepower than a 1000 cc engine.
Why are UTVs limited to 1000cc?
Many riders complain that their machine could be more powerful if their engines were allowed to be larger. But understanding exactly why ROV engines are limited to such a relatively small engine may help us understand the industry as a whole.
The reason for the seemingly arbitrary limit of 1000 ccs, is that if a vehicle has over that capacity, then the vehicle needs to be subjected to crash tests and also needs to be equipped with special safety features like air bags.
This would of course be much more expensive for the ROV manufacturers, so they limit themselves to only 1000 ccs.
Another reason for the 1000 cc limitation is that as ROVs were coming into the market, they needed a definition. ROHVA, the Recreational Off Highway Vehicle Association, then created a very useful definition of an ROV.
A Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle is defined as: “…motorized off-road vehicles designed to travel on four or more non-highway tires, with a steering wheel, non-straddle seating, seat belts, an occupant protective structure, and engine displacement up to 1,000cc.”
When this definition was put into place, the organization never expected the general public to need or want more than 1000 ccs, but as we can see today, they were wrong.
The uncomfortable irony of this engine size limitation is that, humans being what humans are, people found loopholes. Many UTV riders seeking more engine power can ramp up their engine’s power by adding a turbo kit.
Turbo kits, commonly referred to as simply “turbo,” compress the air as it’s being flowed into the engine. Putting compressed air into the pistons, rather than uncompressed, normal air, means that there can be more gas in the piston, meaning that your combustion can be much stronger.
All this means more power for the engine, more horsepower and more speed. What it also means is that you get all those things without the added benefit of airbags.
Limiting ROV engine size to 1000 ccs has kept UTVs available at the relatively cheap prices they’ve existed at for a while, but they also have created a microcosm of DIY-ers customizing their UTVs to be more powerful than their safety features are prepared to handle.
A common phrase, safety first, ignores one simple problem: There are almost unlimited factors when it comes to calculating how “safe” something is.
Riding ATVs or UTVs has inherent risks, that cannot be mitigated, no matter how hard we try with our manufacturing regulations, or even our beloved safety features.
It comes down to recognizing and accepting the risks, and being as careful as you can within the bounds of your own personal abilities.
Objectively, however, we can say that ATVs are significantly more dangerous than UTVs, because of their lack of safety features and faster speed capabilities.