Some people associate off-roading — whether on ATVs, SUVs or dirt bikes — with oppressive engine noise and possible environmental degradation; for others, it’s a favoured way to explore the outdoors. But off-roading can be dangerous, although it depends on various factors, including the environment, the equipment being used and the way you drive.
For example, the sport of motocross, while more popular than ever, is notoriously dangerous for both amateur and professional riders. The sport uses off-road motorcycles on dirt tracks, ramps and other equipment designed to produce spectacular leaps and stunts. It’s also synonymous with death-defying crashes and broken bones because riders often try to pull off flips, long-distance jumps and other risky maneuvers — and they don’t always succeed.
The proliferation of SUVs and trucks has given more drivers than ever the awesomeness of four-wheel-drive. What could be better than exploring the outdoors in a truck or SUV? While some take their vehicle’s superior traction seriously, venturing further, deeper and higher off-road, others might never engage their four wheels on anything other than a public road in some snow.
Plenty of off-roaders are aware of the rules — and risks — of off-roading, but others continue to traipse woefully unprepared — or blissfully ignorant — to the dangers of taking a vehicle into the wild. While accidents can always occur, here are five rules everyone should follow to reduce the possibility of incident off-roading.
Off-roading (OR) is a time-honoured tradition in Texas, so much so that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has even created a Texas Off-Highway Vehicle Program (OHV). The hopeful purpose of the OHV is to provide education and resources to encourage safe and responsible off-roading and decrease the number of OR injuries. Currently, Texas is ranked number two out of all 50 states—second only to California—for having the most off-road and ATV-related deaths in the nation.
On average, 40 people die in ATV accidents on a yearly basis in Texas, while countless others are severely injured due to the following factors:
- Driver error. Any type of vehicle, whether it be a car, motorcycle, bike, or three-wheeler, can be difficult to maneuver on even ground, let alone hilly, rocky, and wet ground. As a result, many drivers lose control of their vehicles or “wipe-out” as a result of terrain ignorance or inability to control their vehicles.
- Alcohol or impaired driving. Many ATV drivers take the opportunity of being out in the wilderness as an invitation to get smashed. The lack of traffic and road rules decreases limitations and further encourages a bit of drinking since it won’t matter if you can’t drive in a straight line. Unfortunately, whether around others or not, drinking and driving can still seriously injure the driver and cause horrendous accidents.
- Poor weather conditions. Rain, snow, and excessive wind can wreak havoc on the landscape and increase risks of rollovers, slides, and loss of control.
- Vehicle defects. Whether you’ve been off-roading for years and know your vehicle inside and out, or if you’re just a beginner, a defect within your ATV can cause you to lose control quickly and dangerously.
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Poor Manufacturing Leads to Tragedy
Manufacturing defects can occur at any point during an ATV design, building, or testing without notice. If a defective ATV winds up in your hands, it can have very real consequences for you and your family—just as it did for Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Deputy Harold Barron and his family.
In February 2013, Barron was riding his ATV in his back pasture in southeast Houston, without a care in the world, when suddenly the ride took a wild turn for the worst. According to reports, a chain on the ATV caught on a concrete pillar, flipping the vehicle over. When discovered by first responders, Barron’s lifeless body was found trapped underneath the vehicle.
Although it is unclear whether the chain was a pursuable defect of the ATV, you can see how even the slightest imperfection of a nut, bolt, or chain can have catastrophic effects. When a company releases a defective product, especially one that is specifically designed to operate in high-risk areas, it can very likely be liable for their mistakes in a court of law.
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What 4WD Is And How Traction Works Off-Road
Four-wheel drive is a bit of a misleading term. You see, just because you have a 4WD vehicle, it doesn’t mean that when you’re stuck, four wheels will be moving and have a grip. Four-wheel drive means that the power is split between the front and the rear differentials — which is where things become tricky.
When you go through a corner, your vehicle’s outside wheels will travel further than the inside wheels. A standard differential allows the wheels to move independently of one another by sending power to the path of least resistance. On pavement, this is a good thing, but when you’re axle deep in mud or have one tire with slightly less grip than the other on a rocky climb, this just means that power goes to the tire with the least amount of grip — which is less than ideal. So essentially when you need it most, 4WD as we know it only powers two wheels; one front, and one rear.
To move all four wheels at once would require the vehicle to be outfitted with front and rear locking differentials, which unless fitted aftermarket at a massive cost, are only available on a select few new vehicles. But don’t worry, these days, the off-road traction control can somewhat emulate a locking differential by braking the spinning tire and sending power to the other side, which presumably has more grip.
Is it Dangerous?
Off-roading in your car isn’t usually dangerous. Sure, there are risks of rollovers, fires, and crashes, but those can almost always be prevented. Along with being preventable, those types of dangers are always a risk whenever you drive a car.
However, when you’re off-roading in an ATV, a four-wheeler, or any other vehicle that isn’t a car, the risks start to get more extreme. These types of vehicles are more dangerous than cars because they don’t have roofs, and often don’t even have doors. This means that in the event of a rollover or crash, you’re far more likely to fall off or even be crushed by your vehicle.
In the event of fire though, ATVs have the advantage. Because they don’t have doors, if you experience an engine fire, it’s far easier to escape and get yourself out of harm’s way.
As I said before, any of these threats while you’re driving can be eliminated by taking the proper precautions. For example, if you drive more carefully, you get rid of many risks like high-speed crashes. If you carry a fire extinguisher in your vehicle, you can put out any fire that might start in your engine.
However, rollovers in any vehicle can’t always be prevented. You can lessen the risk by learning how to drive off-road with better technique, but they’re always possible no matter how good of a driver you are. You should also never go off-roading alone. If you do, and you get injured or lost, nobody will be there to help you.
Along with that, even if you are off-roading in a group, you should tell somebody your exact trip plans. This way, if you get stranded or lost on the trail, someone who’s not there will know where you are and be able to help. If you keep reading, I’ll explain how you can have a safe off-roading experience every time.
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The rules you shouldn’t forget when off-roading
Tell someone, take someone, pack properly and think safety
Before heading out, tell someone where you’re going, who you’re with, when you’re expected to reach your destination, and when and where you’ll be back. Be sure these people have your contact details, and all your phones are charged and can be recharged. Likely you will be out of cell range, but an ETA gives others a reference point.
For more extreme outings, bring a buddy with an equally sturdy 4WD so he or she can drive you back, or possibly pull you out, should you get stuck, damage your vehicle, or have it conk out. B.C.’s AdventureSmart puts it this way: “No one ever expects to get into trouble outdoors. But a turn in the weather, mistake in judgment, an unexpected injury, equipment failure, or sudden nightfall can quickly change any recreational outing into a crisis.”
That means taking the right gear, too — from flashlights to recovery straps, from to warm clothing to water and food. Making safety a top priority might sound like a marketing slogan from Air Canada, but it’s a smart way to frame your off-road outing and limit the potential for mishaps — and be able to get out of one should things go wrong, without triggering a costly rescue that, in turn, could put others at risk.
Keep arms and legs inside at all times, even when it seems safe to touch the rock or tree you are so near in a narrow passageway — your truck or SUV could easily slip, and you can pinch a limb. If the vehicle begins to tip, you might instinctively be tempted to put your arm out to stop it — don’t. Buckle up, always, and strap down everything inside and outside the vehicle as it will undoubtedly get bounced around on the trail. As the possibility of a rollover is ever-present, secure everything as loose objects or pets can cause serious injury to vehicle occupants in the case of a rollover or crash.
Off-road driving requires serious focus and concentration, so after a few hours take a break, rest, or let someone else drive for a while. Don’t rush the experience. If you get stuck and can’t easily extricate yourself, do not be embarrassed and stubbornly refuse to seek help from either another trail user or local who knows the terrain.
Alternatively, if you see someone needing help, lend a hand if you can. During extraction, treat winches, clevises and straps with caution and respect. Often, these recovery devices are under extreme tension when in use and can snap or break free, so stand clear and never walk over a tight rope, cable or chain. Something could snap just as you are stepping over it and cause lethal injury.
Know your vehicle
Does your vehicle have locking differentials? Does your front sway bar disconnect? Do you have 4H and 4L, ATRAC, crawl control or hill descent? Do you need to lock the front hubs before engaging 4WD? Do you have 4WD or AWD? Do you know how to turn off the traction control, or engage the transfer case? Did you bring a spare tire and the tools to change it?
Regular off-roaders will intimately know their vehicle and its equipment. Still, part-timers and the inexperienced might need a refresher on what their vehicle can do — and how to engage the equipment that allows the vehicle to do its thing. Off-road vehicles are often far more capable than their owners give them credit for; the weak link can be the driver, not the vehicle.
How much ground clearance do you have? What are the approach and departure angles? How deep can the truck travel in water? Knowing these key metrics will stop you from attempting something that could high-centre the vehicle or wedge it in a way that requires a tow. Be sure that all these systems work before setting out since it’s not unusual for someone to arrive at the trail only to find fault or a leak in their 4WD system because it hasn’t been used in months.
Driving the trail
Speed and power are not required for severe off-road driving. In 4WD low, gearing and good tires will generally pull you over obstacles. In many cases, the average trail speed is no more than 5 km/h. When climbing or descending hills, always go straight up or down. Know what’s on the other side before going up and over a ridge. Ease up on power as you approach the top and before going over a crest. One foot on the gas and one on the brake can give you more precise control.
Use the lowest gear going downhill, and the brakes to fine-tune your speed, or activate hill descent control. Only climb hills you feel comfortable and confident about, and if you don’t make the crest and start to slip partway up, be sure to stop, keep the vehicle straight and slowly back down straight to a level spot. Neutral can be your friend here, letting gravity do the work of getting you down.
When crawling over rocks, use a low gear and low-range 4WD, and let the vehicle inch over obstacles such as rocks or logs, using two feet if you must — one on the gas, the other on the brake — to come over an obstacle slow enough to prevent a hard, body-scraping landing. Know that a vehicle with 10 inches of ground clearance will not straddle a 12-inch rock, so put tires on top of rocks as you go over. If you hear scraping, don’t panic — skid plates and rock rails will protect the undercarriage if your vehicle has them. Dropping tire pressure three to five PSI can improve traction and avoid punctures.
Before setting a tire, off-road, know who owns the land. Is it public or private? If it’s public, is it an active logging or mining road that may have large trucks that aren’t expecting on-coming traffic? Could there be snowmobiles or ATVs that won’t be expecting a large vehicle? If the road is an active trail, be sure to follow and obey all signs, stay on the course and tread lightly, leaving little to no trace of your existence.
Yield to others, giving right of way to anything less powerful than your vehicles, such as hikers, bikers and horses. When approaching oncoming trail users, let them know how many are in your group or if there’s anything unusual about the trail behind you. If you meet someone on a hill, let the person going uphill have the right of way, as they may need the momentum. Do not stop in the middle of the trail on a bend with no visibility and always keep watch for others behind you. Try to keep dust or mud splatter to a minimum, showing respecting the natural environment and to other people who might be out enjoying a little off-roading.
Don’t Be Afraid To Turn Around
Some think the mark of a real off-road vehicle is one with body damage or “battle scars.” I just think it’s the mark of a village idiot who can’t drive.
Vehicle damage is one of the main reasons people tell me they don’t want to take their vehicle off-road, but it’s completely avoidable if you have a little bit of common sense and take your time.
It’s normal to be nervous when you’re driving through a technical section of an off-road trail, but if you find that you’re uncomfortable, just don’t do it, turn around. Most people will run out of skill far before their vehicle will run out of capability — and the best four-wheel drivers know where they sit in that balance.
Also, don’t forget that as the driver of said off-road vehicle, you’re within your power to immediately employ anyone and everyone in the vehicle to be a second or third set of eyes. If you’re worried about hitting your bumper on a tree — get a second look. If you’re worried about running out of ground clearance, have someone watching, ready to tell you to stop before you cause damage. Four-wheel drivers call this ‘spotting’ and the main rule is to provide direct, concise information, and if you’re not sure what was said: ask again, you can’t hurt the vehicle if it’s not moving.
Suppose you have followed the above-mentioned safety precautions in off-roading but still got injured in a single-vehicle off-road accident. In that case, you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries and damages.
Suppose the accident was caused by uneven terrain, and the owner of the property (private owner, city or locality) is responsible for providing a safe environment. In that case, you may be able to seek justice by suing the responsible parties.