VIDEO: Head Case - ATV and SXS vehicle safety

By: Barry Ashenhurst, Photography by: Barry Ashenhurst

Presented by
  • Plant & Equipment

Farms & Farm Machinery ATV guru Barry Ashenhurst shares his prime tips to keep you safer on an ATV and side-by-side



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Here’s a disturbing fact: side-by-side (SXS) accidents now outnumber all-terrain vehicle (ATV) accidents. And here’s another: according to the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, most ATV injuries involve experienced riders, many of whom have never completed a safety training course.

We would have thought that given the safety advantages in a full-size utility vehicle – the roll cage, the car-like controls, the seats belts and so forth – that the accident rate would have dropped, but that’s not what statistics show. Instead, they prove that utility vehicles now outsell ATVs and that more accidents occur in these types of vehicles.

There may be several reasons for this disappointing trend, but one already has its face at the window: some of us are doing the same stupid things in an SXS we’d do on an ATV.

This particular list of crimes would reach from your house to your letterbox. Even with the current set of occupational health and safety incentives, some of us continue to climb on an ATV and mishandle it all the way to casualty.

Some of us are riding with little knowledge of how these vehicles work, their idiosyncrasies, and even fundamental stuff like how to get one safely around a corner or down a steep hill.

Some of us ride these things every day and never wear a helmet, even though Shark has designed a lightweight, openface helmet specifically for Australian ATV users.

A streak of obstinacy runs deep, out there in Lee Kernaghan Land, but we’re not giving up. We hate seeing our friends hurt in ATV accidents, many of which that might have been avoided with a little education.

And so, since October is National Safe Work Month, here’s a brief refresher course in ‘best practice’ on an ATV or SXS.


Yamaha Wolverine
Modern side-by-sides like this Yamaha Wolverine, have first-class off-road ability, but require common sense and experience to get the most out of them.

These days the choice is: you can buy petrol and diesel models, full-size or ‘mid-size’ quads, utility vehicles equipped with roll cages, power-steering, dual-range automatic transmissions and tipping cargo beds, and on top of that a range of accessories to fit your buggy for a specific purpose, like hunting or extreme weather conditions.

You can buy two, three, four, and six-seater versions. Which one to buy? You’re an adult and don’t need us telling you what to do, but here’re a few suggestions to take into consideration.

  • What will you do with this new appliance? If the vehicle will carry more than one person and haul heavy loads, forget ATVs, buy a SXS. If you need an agile machine you can steer through wooded areas or use to control a mob of sheep, consider an ATV.
  • If you don’t need 50hp, don’t buy a large, powerful ATV or SXS.
  • If you’re getting on a bit, buy a machine with power steering. You won’t believe what a difference it makes. Power steering isn’t a fancy option, it’s a safety feature.
  • If your wife and/or children will operate the vehicle, buy a SXS. The controls are more car-like, it has a steering wheel for example, not handlebars, and this alone makes a novice operator feel more at home. (And you will enrol them in safety training, won’t you?).
  • Don’t buy any ATV or SXS without strong engine braking. All-wheel drive vehicles that get you up a hill easily but not safely down again are worse than useless, they’re downright dangerous. We could name and shame the models that lack engine braking but that would cause trouble and we already have enough.
  • With ATVs, your dealer is your best friend. He will help you choose an appropriate model, look after it for you, and represent your interests if something goes bang during the warranty period. If you can, buy your ATV from a local dealer you know and trust. If you golf together, so much the better.


Safety check
Father and son safety check. Teach your kids good safety habits and they’ll carry them through life.

When it comes to small off-road vehicles, education is everything. Get educated or get hurt. Dealers can and do supply training material in the form of audio-visual material, CDs, and so forth.

Yamaha, for example, runs training days for dealers and key sales people so they can help educate ATV buyers and riders.

Various government and private organisations offer ATV safety training courses. To save you the trouble of looking for them, we’ve compiled a list of who they are and where they are (see below).

And now a simple test to help you decide whether or not you need safety training. If your answer to any of these questions is no, then dude, you need help.

  1. Do you know how to safely turn a fully-loaded ATV around on a steep hill?
  2. Do you know the correct tyres pressures front and rear?
  3. Do you know what a diff lock does?
  4. Do you know when to use one?
  5. Do you know why most ATVs won’t start in reverse?
  6. Do you know the difference between a handbrake and a park brake?
  7. Do you know how to use engine braking? (and no, Ethel, you don’t just ‘turn it on a ride down’).
  8. Can you find the air filter?
  9. Do you know what turf mode does?
  10. Was Lee Kernaghan ever pregnant? (trick question).


A Polaris RZR going through the ‘Wombat Holes’ at the Bylong 4x4 park in NSW.

There’s no point taking a safety course and not practising the techniques you’ve been taught. Get the machine out there and gradually increase the challenge until you sense you’re getting a feel for how the beast behaves. And:

  • Be sensible. Avoid frightening scenarios that bend or break things.
  • Lean into corners, not away from them.
  • Brake gradually. Don’t brake hard going downhill; that can lock the front wheels, and locked wheels don’t steer.
  • Never, ever, carry a pillion passenger on a single-seater ATV. They’re not designed for it. It’s bat-crazy dangerous.
  • If you’re not confident of getting up a steep hill, don’t try. Getting half way up then finding you have to turn around can be more intimidating than trying to climb the rest of it.
  • If you must ride over an obstacle like a log, stand next to the machine, put the transmission in low range and ‘walk’ it over the obstacle. And if you don’t know how to, get someone who does know to show you. Fallen trees and logs are common obstacles on rural properties.
  • Ride with a mate. Having an accident when no-one knows you’re hurt or even where you are can be life threatening; and 
  • Read the owners’ manual. Most these days contain plenty of helpful advice on how to position your bodyweight on an open ATV.


Recreational vehicle
There are side-by-sides then there are sides-by-sides. This Can-Am is a hard core recreational vehicle. And here’s an interesting thing. While people on the land may be reluctant to wear helmets, the guys who drive these things wouldn’t go anywhere without the latest and greatest head gear.

Oh my. The number of riders we’ve seen without helmets – or gloves or boots or eye protection. The mind biggles. I mean boggles.

  • The worst ATV accidents involve ‘crush injuries’ where the rider is struck by the machine. A struck head inside a helmet is less likely to implode than an unprotected head.
  • Since you can now buy light-weight helmets with ample ventilation, there’s no reason not to wear a helmet.
  • Riding without eye protection is almost as stupid as riding with an unprotected melon. Australia is hot and dry and that means dust and dust means that sometimes you can see bugger all. I once saw a trail-rider on Cape York ride flat knacker into a dirty big washout. He was riding in thick dust, into the sun, couldn’t see a goddam thing and spent the rest of the ride in the support vehicle.
  • Sunglasses are not eye protection. Dust can ride around corners. If you’re expecting heavy dust, wear goggles or well-designed industrial safety glasses.
  • At least take work gloves with you. They’ll protect your hands when you’re lifting spikey stuff and help keep your fingers warm when it’s cold. Most ATVs don’t have grip warmers but handguards and those do only so much to keep cold air out.
  • Wear boots. I saw a photograph on Facebook recently where a sharp branch had pierced a trail-rider’s MX boot and penetrated his leg. God knows what it would have been like had the boots not limited the penetration.


The quickest wearing components on an ATV are brake pads, CV belts, and suspension bushes. Check ‘em regularly. When one item fails it can cause failure in another, more expensive part.

Here’s a tragic story I know to be true. A farmer found a way to bypass the safety switch that prevented his quad starting in reverse gear. We don’t know why but that’s what he did. Later, an adult and child climbed on that ATV. When the adult fired it up, the machine reversed into a solid structure behind it which killed the child. It was a tragedy beyond words, but sadly, it would not have been the first time a quad user had modified a factory design to ‘make it work better’.

Crucial for a machine that spends its life working is to keep it in good condition. Most people don’t do this. They think their ATV will run for ever on the smell of unjustified optimism. Modern ATVs and SXSs are robust bits of gear, for sure, but rough terrain, steep descents, hauling, towing and water crossings take their toll after a while. Things break (and more things break on cheap equipment). CV boots wear and can be damaged by trail debris. When that happens, abrasive materials eat away at the CV joint itself.

Pushing a maintenance-starved ATV is like watering weeds. It’s only going to get worse and more likely to fail. Daily maintenance items (coolant level, engine oil level, brake fluid level, air filters, and so on) are placed for easy servicing.

Tyres should be checked regularly for splitting or any other damage to the external carcass. Tyres can also degrade through simple weathering so keep an eye on that as well.

The three quickest wearing components on an ATV or SXS are bushes, brake pads and belts: the three Bs. If you can’t check all these things yourself, ask your dealer to do it. He’s your best friend, remember?


ATV Training Providers





TOP RIDER 1300 13 13 62



New South Wales




CITS TRAINING 1800 633 500




TAFE QUEENSLAND  1300 308 233


South Australia



Western Australia



Northern Territory

SMART NT 08 8947 2470



TASTAFE 1300 655 307



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