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What is an ATV?

By Jennifer Hale
Updated May 23, 2024
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An ATV, or all-terrain vehicle, is a motorized off-highway vehicle with handlebars and a seat like a motorcycle, but with four tires that are optimized for control and safety when navigating unpaved roads. The term is more generally used to describe a number of small, open, motorized buggies and tricycles designed for off road use.

On an all-terrain vehicle, the rider sits upright and operates these vehicles like motorcycles, but the extra wheels give the rider more stability at slower speeds. ATVs are used for everything from racing and recreational riding to hunting, farming, hauling, plowing snow and even cutting the grass. Because of their small size and awesome power, they can be used for an unlimited number of duties.

ATVs originated in the 1970s and were designed with three wheels and a very low power engine. They were used mainly for recreational travel and had limited use around farms and hunting lodges. As technology developed and the engines became more powerful, the design of the three wheeler ultimately led to its demise. They were unstable and hard to control on uneven ground, at higher speeds, or in any weight transfer situation. Due to safety issues, manufactures produced four-wheeled models in the late 1980s and ended the production of the three wheelers all together by 1987.

With the advent of the four wheel design, which is the industry standard for almost all current ATV production, manufactures opened another chapter in the world of ATVs. The four wheel design allowed for much greater speed, more powerful engines, and ultimately was the foundation for advanced suspension design. By 1987, all three major manufacturers were producing high-performance four wheelers, which were raced around the country at local motocross tracks to showcase the great advancements in technology.

In the modern ATV market consumers have an unlimited selection of machines. ATVs can be purchased in almost any color, any size, two or four wheel drive, single or multiple passenger, and in almost any price ranging from $2,000 US dollars (USD) to $10,000 USD, a few even higher. The major ATV manufacturers are: Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Can-Am, Polaris, and Artic Cat. All of these manufacturers offer a variety of machines from race ready quads to all-out work horses, which can be purchased with anything from a lawn mower attachment to a snow plow. The possibilities in the new ATV market are only limited by how much money a particular customer has to spend.

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Discussion Comments
By geekish — On Sep 03, 2011

@Speechie - There are helmet laws, but as I am sure you assumed, they vary per state. For example in Oregon, they have a helmet law; however it is only for people under 18.

A study that compared North Carolina children in ATV accidents versus Pennsylvania children in ATV accidents (they studied the particular age of 16 or below), found that fewer children in North Carolina died versus Pennsylvania where helmets have not been made law.

But again age seems to be a factor in ATV accidents.

By Speechie — On Sep 02, 2011

@MissDaphne - For every fun ATV story I have heard I have heard a scary or tragic one.

However, like you said it was someone who was typically sixteen that was operating the ATV. So yes, no to kids using them, but for responsible adults I would imagine that they would be able to better handle the fun versus safety of ATV performance.

I personally have never been on one and would love to try one after I have learned how to best avoid ATV accidents!

Are their classes on ATV safety? And I assume there are now ATV helmet laws?

By MissDaphne — On Sep 02, 2011

I'm sure they have legitimate uses by adults, but I would never let one of my children ride an ATV. Some time back, I taught part-time in a community college, "development" (i.e., remedial) writing and we would do a personal essay about their most formative experience.

I always had two or three girls write about having a baby, and about the same number of kids would write about an ATV accident, either their own or someone else's.

My students were mostly 18-20 and the accidents they were describing happened between that age and about 16. Invariably, someone was doing something stupid on an ATV and almost got killed. (Some of the stories involved serious injuries.) To me, they just seem too dangerous for young people.

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