It’s more than just a popular activity in the Northland. For some, it’s a right-of-passage. It’s not odd for area children to learn how to ride on an all-terrain vehicle before they jump behind the handle bars of a bicycle. These machines can be dangerous for Northland youngsters, but area volunteers are doing to make them safer.
On a chilly April afternoon, more than 30 youngsters are doing more than revving their engines. Eager ATV riders are navigating through the mud, around corners and over branches.
While many kids like the tutorials, in Minnesota and Wisconsin gaining a safety certificate is the law if they want to ride on public lands and roads.
Robin Kretzschmar is a volunteer classroom instructor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and she says many people are unaware of the state’s guidelines.
“If you were born after July 1st, 1987, you have to have the certification,” said Kretzschmar.
That means essentially if you are under the age of 30, it is illegal to operate an ATV on public lands without a safety training certificate. Wisconsin has similar guidelines.
“The can’t go because it is illegal. They have to have the training and the certificate…the certification that goes with it,” said Kretzschmar.
Kretzschmar is doing her best to make sure no child loses their life in an ATV accident. She hosts this safety class for anyone under 18 years old.
“They haven’t had the safety training. They haven’t had the law shown to them. It’s what we try to do…teach them the laws,” said Kretzschmar.
Many lessons provided at this class are hands-on, and the aspiring riders are learning how to navigate over and through makeshift obstacles.
“They learn about the hazards. They learn where they can ride. They learn where they cannot ride. They learn how to keep from having a rollover,” said Kretzschmar.
Nicholas Sarkela, a teenager from Virginia, says his parents urged him to sign up.
“My Dad was telling me that I have to take a course in order to ride an ATV by myself,” said Sarkela.
And while riding ATV’s can be a thrill, they can also be dangerous.
“They’re not toys. We treat them like toys. But I want them to be safe riding,” said Kretzschmar.
On the trail, the hazards are real. Machines can flip over have causing punishing injuries such as smashed faces, broken necks and crushed chests.
Harrison LaFavor told Eyewitness News about his first ATV mishap, one where he was a passenger and his sister was at the helm.
“When we were driving…she kinda went up a hillside sideways, and it kinda flipped over. I didn’t get hurt or break anything, so that was good,” sail LaFavor.
Other young riders haven’t been as lucky. In the last 3 years, thirteen people under the age of 18 were killed in Minnesota and Wisconsin ATV accidents. Of those, only 3 had acquired a safety certificate.
“We try to tell them, you gotta be careful,” said Kretzschmar.
Nationally, ATV-related deaths have dropped. Figures for kids younger than 16 years old show 142 deaths more than a decade ago dropping to 58 in 2015. And some believe that drop in numbers is due to classes like this one.
“We talk about safety. Safety is the biggest thing,” said Kretzschmar.
Renee Gatewood’s son is in this class, but she says he is not new to the sport.
“He’s been on an ATV since he’s been 3 years old,” said Gatewood.
On this day, Gatewood is also a volunteer instructor. providing lessons to her son and other riders like him.
“I think it’s incredibly important. Because it not only builds confidence, but it also teaches them the little things like making sure even when you are nervous..to stop, look both ways. Or when they are doing the obstacles, how to be more cautious of if it starts leaning…what to do and so they kind of teach them all of these things,” said Gatewood.
Gatewood knows safety isn’t top priority for kids.
“And I think that when I was young, the only thought was in my mind was, let’s go have fun…let’s go out an joyride and do thing that are adventurous,” said Gatewood.
And the lessons taught here are not just about riding.
“For me it was the wetlands and carrying invasive species,” said Sarkela.
“If you do get lost, that 3 signals…like 3 flashes of a flashlight, or 3 fires in a triangle or 3 whistles, that’s what the rescuers are looking for,” sail LaFavor.
“We talk about the laws that they follow…that if a conservation officer stops them, why he might be stopping them,” said Kretzschmar.
While the curriculum is laid out by the state, it’s the volunteers and area ATV clubs that make it affordable. In some cases, the club sponsors the class and covers the $55 price tag.
“ATV clubs become members with the [MN] DNR, and they do all of this voluntarily. There’s no payment in this for that. There’s just what we do,” said Kretzschmar.
“We wanna keep our sport running,” said Gatewood.
Because unlike the machines the kids ride, the smiles they wear are irreplaceable.
“If I can keep one kid out of an accident, then I’ve done my job,” said Kretzschmar.
Both Minnesota and Wisconsin offer ATV safety classes though this summer.
A link to classes offered in Minnesota can be found here.
A link to classes offered in Wisconsin can be found here.