Having ridden motorcycles and ATVs since I was a kid and never being seriously injured, my immediate answer would be yes UTVs (also referred to as Side-by-Sides) are pretty safe.
Unlike dirt bikes and ATVs they have a seat belts and a roll cage, but how safe are they?
If you drive them as intended and use proper safety equipment, UTVs are generally safe. Drive within your abilities, pay attention to surroundings, wear a helmet and seat belt and follow the precautions of the UTV manufacturer.
I have been lucky enough to have not been in any UTV accidents or know anyone that has been seriously injured or killed in a UTV accident. Unfortunately others have not been so lucky.
After Googling “utv accident” I found a number of news reports of people that had been fatally injured in accidents involving UTVs. Some were lucky enough to only have mild injuries.
I don’t believe Side-by-Sides are inherently dangerous. As I mentioned, they do have seat belts, roll cages and are fully enclosed. However these can make drivers overconfident in their abilities. As with any motorized vehicle there are dangers that come along with driving them.
What are the dangers of driving or riding in a UTV?
A lot of the accidents I read about had several common factors. These were drinking and driving, inexperienced drivers, not using safety equipment or excessive speed. These point to driver error more so than the vehicle itself.
In the crashes I saw online the drivers weren’t always at fault though, in some cases UTVs were hit by other UTVs or sand rails in the dunes. Sometimes accidents that are beyond the driver’s control happen.
By knowing the risks and taking precautions you can greatly reduce the chances of being in an accident.
A Side-by-Side is at more of a risk for rollover than an ATV because of its weight and center of gravity. On an ATV you can use body weight to shift the balance in corners. You can’t do that on a 1300 lbs Side-by-Side.
Despite having better suspension than an ATV a Side-by-Side can roll over fairly easily if you corner too fast or aren’t careful on uneven terrain.
The top speed of a 2017 Polaris RZR XP Turbo is 80 MPH. The 2017 Can-Am Maverick X3 Turbo is even faster at 85 MPH.
That amount of speed can get a novice in trouble very quickly. The acceleration on these machines is incredible. Beginners can easily get going too fast for conditions or their abilities without realizing it.
Even utility based Side-by-Sides with much lower top speeds can go fast enough to seriously injure, it’s not just the high horsepower performance models to watch out for.
The important thing about speed and handling goes back to knowing what the machine is capable of and what you as a driver are capable of.
No ABS or Stability Control
Side-by-Sides can feel a lot like a car. You are sitting inside with doors and seatbelts. This can give drivers the impression that it handles like a car. But cars have safety assists like anti-lock brakes and stability control.
Side-by-Sides don’t have these (some European models do have ABS).
Combine the fact that UTVs can feel a lot like a car but have none of the safety assists and you get inexperienced drivers that lose control. When driving a UTV you are directly connected to the steering and braking system. It’s a very raw experience that many people are not used to.
False sense of safety
I believe one of the biggest dangers of Side-by-Sides is the false sense of safety they can give. With a roll cage over your head and seat belts or a 5 point harness you can feel very protected. So protected that you don’t realize how vulnerable you really are.
Those safety measures do offer protection. But they can only do so much. Even with them in place serious injuries can occur. Their goal is to keep you alive, not completely free from all harm.
Being caged in and strapped in won’t make you invincible.
How to stay safe while driving or riding in a UTV
Now that I’ve gone over some of the ways UTVs can be dangerous lets talk about how to stay safe while still having fun.
Read the owners manual
Unfortunately not knowing how to properly drive a UTV and not following the safety procedures in the user manual are big factors in many accidents.
I know many people don’t want to read the manual to learn how to operate a Side-by-Side but if you have no experience it’s very important. It will cover topics like rollover risks, potential dangers and safe operating procedures.
Someone that has never ridden ATVs, motorcycles and other off-road vehicles doesn’t understand how many factors need to be considered when driving a Side-by-Side.
The owners manual won’t cover every scenario but its a good start.
Take a safety course
Drivers new to UTVs can benefit from a safety courses like those offered by the Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association.
They have three courses to teach safe off-road vehicle operation:
- ROHVA E-Course – This free course doesn’t teach you how to drive a UTV but provides awareness on safe operation and driving strategies.
- ROV Basic DriverCourse – A hands on course conducted by certified coaches. It teaches drivers basic operating skills and driving procedures. Starting and stopping, turning, braking and swerving are covered.
- Open Trail Experience – Students learn how to traverse rocky and sandy terrain in addition to water crossings, climbing hills and over rocks.
Know your limits and the limits of the vehicle
Without knowing what the Side-by-Side will do in given situations drivers can find themselves in dangerous situations.
How fast can it go before handling is greatly affected? How sharp of a turn can it take before rolling over? At what angle will it begin to tip over? What does it do when you slam on the brakes at speed?
The same goes for the driver. How will you react if you begin to loose control? Do you know how to safely corner at high speed? Are you able to jump? Can you keep the front end from stabbing into the ground if you become airborne?
Don’t drink and drive
Don’t do it. It’s not legal to do so while operating any motor vehicle.
Use Proper Safety Gear
Wear a helmet. If your head bounces against the roll cage, seat belt bracket or steering wheel you’re going to wish you had a helmet on. While it won’t make you invincible, wearing one can save your life. I get my helmets from Rocky Mountain ATV MC.
Wear a seat belt or multi-point harness. Without being properly restrained you can easily be thrown from the vehicle in a rollover. When using a seat belt don’t put the shoulder harness behind your back or under your arm. Without the shoulder harness lockup you can bust your face on the dash.
Wear long pants and a long sleeve shirt. These won’t offer much protection but it will certainly be better than shorts and a tank top. In the event a tree branch comes into the cab or you rollover, having that extra clothing will help with abrasions.
Use eye protection. Wear goggles, a helmet with a face shield or some sort of eye protection.
Don’t let children under 16 drive
Children under 16 shouldn’t drive UTVs unless they are specifically made for kids. I know a lot of people don’t follow this and let their kids drive anyway.
No matter the age of your kids if you let them drive be sure its under close supervision and in a controlled environment. Children don’t understand how fast and the power these machines can be. Some adults don’t even understand.
Don’t drive on pavement
UTVs are off-road vehicles and are not meant to be driven on pavement. The handling characteristics change a lot on asphalt and you can roll or lose control pretty quick.
Any off-road vehicle can be dangerous. UTVs are no exception. Being aware of the dangers and proper safety procedures goes a long way toward keeping you and your family safe while ensuring you still have fun.
Don’t let something fun like riding with friends and family turn into a bad situation by getting hurt when so many accidents can be avoided.