The Safe Use of ATVs in Agriculture

The ATV has found many uses in agriculture as a substitute for pick-up trucks, horses, and even walking.
The Safe Use of ATVs in Agriculture - Articles


When all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) first appeared in the United States in the 1970s, they were promoted and sold as a recreational vehicle designed to provide "thrills" for the rider. Riders soon realized that ATVs (Figure 1) are useful machines to move through areas not accessible with pick-up trucks, four-wheel drives or other motorized vehicles, and the ATV became a popular hunting vehicle. ATVs were quickly recognized for their many uses in agriculture as a substitute for pick-up trucks, horses, and even walking. The ATV is now found on all types of farms and ranches, in orchards and forests, in ornamental nurseries and on golf courses.

ATVs are commonly used to inspect crops and livestock; to fertilize and apply chemicals; to inspect and repair irrigation systems and fence lines; to supervise field crews; to herd livestock; to mark timber; to mow grass, to move dirt and to transport things from here to there and back again.

An ATV offers a new sense of freedom to individuals with limited physical mobility due to an injury or health condition (e.g., stroke, arthritis, etc.). These individuals can use an ATV as a mobility device to enable them to access all areas of the farm which can increase their abilities to manage their farm operation.

Injuries from ATV

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPCS), a federal regulatory agency works with industry to develop and implement standards for safety in consumer products. This agency tracks injuries and fatalities attributed to a product and can recall unsafe products. The CPSC worked with industry to ban the sale of 3-wheelers when injury and fatality data showed the 3-wheeler to be an unsafe vehicle. Based upon the CPSC program, it is recognized that as ATV use increases there has been an increase in injury and fatalities related to ATVs. Continued monitoring of this trend could result in product changes.

Safety Recommendations

To reduce the risk of injury or fatality while operating an ATV, follow these safety recommendations:

  • ATVs are not toys; manufacturers suggestion children under the age of 12 should not operate ATVs with an engine size over 70 cc.
  • Children under the age of 16 years often lack the emotional maturity and physical size to operate or control most machines. They should not operate adult-sized ATVs or those with an engine greater than 90 cc.
  • Never carry a passenger; the unique handling characteristics of an ATV require that the operator shift both weight and position on the seat to steer and control the vehicle. Extra riders hamper the operator's ability to steer and control the ATV.
  • Since ATVs are small and low to the ground, they are not as visible as larger vehicles. Lights, reflectors, and highly visible flags should be used to increase visibility.
  • Never ride the ATV on public roads. ATVs are not designed for road use and hard surfaces can increase the risk of an overturn incident.
  • Avoid using ATVs while alcohol or drugs are in the bloodstream. In nearly 10 percent of all injuries, and in 30 percent of all fatal ATV incidents, alcohol use was a contributing factor.

Selecting an ATV for Agricultural Work

For most agricultural operations, an ATV with a coil spring shock absorber system, an automatic clutch, reverse gear, shaft drive, and a differential with a locking mechanism offers the most versatility for agricultural work. PTO capability may be desirable for some agricultural tasks. Check with your dealer to determine what features are best for your operational needs.

Three-wheelers vs. Four-Wheelers

A four-wheeler has greater capacity for work than a three-wheeler (Figure 1). They are more stable and less prone to side overturns. The overwhelming asset of the four-wheeler is its stability. The sale of new three-wheeled ATVs has been banned but there are many three-wheelers still in use. Never purchase a used three-wheeler!

Figure 1. Three-wheeler

Speed and Power

Adult, work size ATVs come equipped with engines ranging from 90 to 700 cc or more, with gear ratios that allow speeds in excess of 70 mph. The use(s) planned for the ATV should determine the size of the engine and the gear ratios. There are few, if any, reasons for a maximum speed of more than 25 mph in any agricultural operation. Serious ATV injury incidents increase at higher speeds. Differences between an ATV with a 2 x 4 and 4 x 4 drive train include turning and driving ability on different terrains.

ATVs and Work Hazards

ATV Overturns

A four-wheeler can do many of the tasks formerly assigned to the small farm tractor. Just as safe tractor operation is influenced by speed, terrain, and load size, so is the operation of an ATV. Steep or uneven terrain can cause an ATV overturn to happen quickly. High speed, uneven ground, ditches or large rocks increase the chance of the ATV being rolled or flipped during operation. Moving the ATV at a slower speed while shifting the operator's weight to the upper side of the slope reduces overturn risk. Selecting an ATV with coil springs and shock absorber suspension systems will help reduce bouncing and pitching from side to side.

Loading and Braking

Trailers that are loaded with firewood or feed may tax the pulling and braking capacity of the ATV. However, an attachment such as a tow behind mower may have more weight than the braking power of the ATV can handle. Heavy loads can push ATVs down slopes with an increased risk of "jack knifing", sliding out of control, or being rolled over. Carrying racks and pulled equipment increase the versatility of an ATV and enables it to complete a variety of jobs. To reduce the risk of a rear overturn, do not carry more than one-third of the ATV's weight on the rear carrying rack. The recommendation is to evenly divide the load between a front and rear carrying rack (Figure 2).

Figure 2. ATV with front and rear rack.

Do not tow a load that weighs more than the total weight of the ATV plus the operator, and only hitch to the manufacturer's hitch point. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations when pulling or towing loaded carts, mowers, or other attachments.

The front and back brake of an ATV may operate independently or may have a linking design in which all four brakes work together. Using an ATV with a linked brake system reduces the chances of inappropriately or mistakenly applying the front or rear brake in a way that reduces control of the machine. Regardless of the braking system used, learn how to brake at differing speeds and when pulling a load to reduce risk of losing control while stopping or turning. The ATV operator's manual can help you understand the machine's braking capacity.

Unseen Obstacles

Often times the ATV used for slower moving agricultural work may also be used to herd livestock at higher speeds over uneven terrain. Herding animals with an ATV can be very hazardous. High speed travel across a field may lead to the front end of the ATV dropping into a ditch or hole or hitting a rock. Quick or tight turns can roll the machine. Rolling over or flipping the machine can result in severe injury that could be a fatal mistake.

Personal Protective Equipment

Hazards involved in operating an ATV normally require standard items of personal protective equipment. The nature of some agricultural work, however, may reduce the need for some types of protective equipment. Personal protective equipment recommendations are discussed in the context of agricultural work.


A full-face helmet that is the correct size for the operator should always be worn when riding an ATV. While some agricultural uses are at very low speeds where a helmet may interfere with close inspection or become unbearably hot, low-speed work activity often includes higher speed travel to and from the work site. At speeds in excess of 10 mph, a full-face shield helmet can reduce the risk of head injury and should always be kept with the ATV. The full-face shield helmet should bear the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z90.1 label which signifies that it meets national safety standards for design and manufacturing. If the helmet does not have a face shield, wear ANSI-approved goggles or glasses with hard-coated polycarbonate lenses.

Face Shields and Goggles

For some work at slow speeds no head or face protection may be needed but eye protection is recommended. For other slow-speed operations, such as working woodlands or ornamental nurseries, a full-face shield or goggles should be worn. One branch or thorn in the eye and your sight might be lost. At higher speeds, face or eye protection should always be worn because even an insect could cause a serious eye injury. The goggles or face shield should carry the ANSI Z87.1 label or equivalent (e.g., VESC 8 or V-8) on the bottom or side of the lens or shield. Grey- or green-tinted shields or goggles are best in bright sunlight, but after sundown only clear lens shields or goggles should be worn.


Quality boots or over-the-ankle work shoes with good heels are a must. The soles and heels should be made of slip-resistant materials rather than leather or neoprene-type material. While motorcycle or ATV-type boots are best, a good quality pair of over-the-ankle, tightly-laced work shoes are adequate for most agricultural operations.

Gloves and Clothing

Gloves and clothing should be determined by the task. Long-sleeved shirts, full-length pants, and well-padded gloves are normally needed. Avoid loose-fitting clothes which could easily catch on a branch or other obstacle.

Pesticide Applications

Pesticide applicators may have an increased exposure when using an ATV outfitted with a pesticide applicator because of the close proximity between applicator, spray nozzle and treated material. Follow pesticide labels for recommendations of the personal protective equipment when using spraying pesticides.

ATV Maintenance

Routinely check the ATV to make sure it is running properly to reduce risk of injury and the potential to be stranded due to a malfunction. An ATV has the following key areas that need to be maintained for the machine to work efficiently:

  • Tires - Maintain the recommended air pressure in all tires because uneven pressure can cause the ATV to pull to one side. Nuts and bolts should be tightly secured.
  • Throttle - Check the throttle to make sure it is moves smoothly.
  • Brakes - Check the brakes every time before you ride.
  • Lights - Check the lights to make sure they are working and wipe away any dirt to maintain optimal visibility.
  • Oil and Fuel - Examine the ATV for leaks and maintain recommended fluid levels.
  • Drive Train and Chassis - Check for wear, leaks, and loose parts. Replace, tighten, and lubricate parts as needed.

Operating an ATV

Due to the design of an ATV, it is very different to operate an ATV compared to most other machines on the farm operation. Differences in operation are evident in turning, braking, climbing, and operating on various terrains. Turning involves the operator shifting their weight for different types of turns. The operator should shift their body weight forward and towards the outside of the turn while making the turn. When turning at a higher speed, the operator should lean their upper body towards the inside of the turn while maintaining their weight on the outer footrest. When braking, gently and evenly apply the brakes. Overturn incidents can occur on sloped terrains so it is important to remember how to climb, descend, and operate on sloped areas. When climbing an incline, the operator should shift their body weight forward while keeping both of their feet on the footrests. If the ATV stalls or begins to drift backwards, slowly apply the brakes, stop the machine, dismount, and slowly guide the ATV down off the slope while using the hand brakes to assist. If the ATV stalls or begins to drift backwards, slowly apply the brakes. When descending a sloped terrain, the operator should shift into a lower gear and drive down hill with their feet on the footrest, sitting toward the back of the operator's seat. When possible, an ATV should not be driven across steep slopes.

ATVs and State Law

An ATV is defined in the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code as follows:

  • Class 1 ATV - "A motorized off-highway vehicle which travels on three or more inflatable tires and has a maximum width of 50 inches and a maximum dry weight of 800 pounds"
  • Class 2 ATV - A motorized off-highway vehicle which travels on three or more inflatable tires and has a width which exceeds 50 inches or a dry weight which exceeds 800 pounds"

ATV use in Pennsylvania is governed by state law. The major parts of the law address registration and titling, operation of ATVs, accident reports, liability and law enforcement. The complete ATV law and a brochure summarizing important points can be viewed at The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) website. Here are a few of the most pertinent points relative to agricultural uses.

Registration and Titling

All ATVs in Pennsylvania, except ATVs used solely for business or agricultural purposes, need to be registered and titled with DCNR. ATVs that are used for both work and recreation must be registered and titled. ATVs used exclusively for agricultural purposes are exempt from the sales tax, registration and title requirements of general use all-terrain vehicles.

Operation of ATVs and Public Roads

General use ATVs are authorized only to cross public roadways perpendicular to the roadway after coming to a complete stop and yielding the right-of-way to oncoming highway traffic. ATVs used exclusively for agricultural purposes are excluded from this regulation (See 'When ATVs are MAVs' Section). Children between 8 and 15 years old are authorized to cross highways with general purpose ATVs provided that they are under the direct supervision of an adult and have a valid safety certificate. These certificates are proof of training in an approved training program.

When ATVs are MAVs

ATVs which are used exclusively for agricultural purposes are classified in the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code as a Multipurpose Agricultural Vehicle (MAV) and are exempt from the Pennsylvania ATV law. A MAV is defined as "a vehicle which is 60 inches or less in width and 1200 pounds or less in dry weight and which is used exclusively for agricultural operations and only incidentally operated or moved upon the highways."

ATVs which fit the definition of a MAV may be operated by the owner of the ATV on roads between parts of the farm and upon roads between farms not located more than five (5) miles apart (Pennsylvania Vehicle Code, Chapter 13). An ATV that is used for dual purposes, that is, for both work and recreation, is not considered a MAV and thus would fall under the general ATV law at all times. If you have questions about the MAV designation for your ATV, contact the DCNR at 1-866-545-2476.


Contact your ATV dealership, DCNR, or the ATV Safety Institute to find an ATV safety training in your areas. These classes will inform riders about safety information and ATV legislation.


A web search of the Consumer Product Safety Commission will yield information and further data about ATV injuries and fatalities.

Prepared by Dennis J. Murphy, Professor and William C. Harshman, Senior Project Associate