June 3, 2021

A teenage girl was riding on an ATV without a helmet when it flipped five times. She is lucky to be alive, and her mother has a warning for parents.

Safety experts liken helmet use to seat belt-wearing practice

Advice to prevent ATV accidents Advice to prevent ATV accidents

photo by Shutterstock

Wearing a helmet while riding an all-terrain vehicle (ATV), a bike or a skateboard should be a no-brainer.

Experts at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt say wearing a helmet is the best save-the-brain decision anyone enjoying these activities can make.

“It should be a habit, much like putting on a seat belt,” said Purnima Unni, MPH, program manager, Pediatric Trauma Injury Prevention at Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. “A helmet helps to absorb the shock upon impact to help protect the brain, reducing the severity of injury.”

Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt saw 99 ATV incidents in 2020  when most students were at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Between January and March 2021, the hospital treated nine ATV injuries.

“My message — please make your kids wear a helmet, and adults too,” she said. “I know it’s not the cool thing, but it’s not worth the trauma to ride without one.”

Brooklyn Sutton, 14, was the hospital’s most recent patient with an ATV-related injury. On Memorial Day she was transported via LifeFlight to Children’s Hospital — two hours away from her home in Gleason, Tennessee, after the ATV she was driving with a friend flipped five times.

Brooklyn was not wearing a helmet.

“We were told by her friends that she was going about 40 MPH, saw a path she wanted to take, took the turn too fast, and lost control,” said Sarah Morrow, Brooklyn’s mother. “She was flung off after the third flip, which means her head repeatedly hit the ground.”

Two of the most common scenarios emergency personnel discover with ATV traumas — riders are not wearing helmets or there is more than one passenger — often result in serious harm.

Sutton suffered from multiple abrasions and a massive concussion, which means a lengthy recovery, according to her mother.

Children are especially prone to ATV injuries because of lack of experience operating motorized vehicles, lack of psychomotor control and coordination, and lack of judgment that can result in risk-taking behavior and poor decision-making skills.

“We are so thankful her injuries were not life-threatening. I told her that she was one lucky girl.”

“It’s certainly a normal response to tell your children to go outside for a bit to get some fresh air, sunshine or exercise,” said Harold Lovvorn III, MD, associate professor of Pediatric Surgery and medical director of Pediatric Trauma at Children’s Hospital. “But we will probably need to add a caveat to ‘go outside and play.’ Maybe it’s adding the tag ‘and don’t forget your helmet.’

“When we send them outdoors for independent activities, we will need to encourage them to wear protective gear and to practice safe play.”

Lovvorn said most children don’t know how to protect themselves, so gentle reminders about following safe practices are encouraged.

“We are so thankful her injuries were not life-threatening,” said Morrow. “I told her that she was one lucky girl. This will prompt me to talk to my kids about helmets and other safety precautions. If she ever gets the itch to ride a four-wheeler again, she will have on a helmet, even if I have to buy it.

“My message — please make your kids wear a helmet, and adults too,” she said. “I know it’s not the cool thing, but it’s not worth the trauma to ride without one.”

Children’s Hospital fully supports recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Surgeons that children 16 and under should not ride ATVs due to the high risk of serious injuries. However, if parents allow their child to ride an ATV despite the known risk that these vehicles pose to children, the following safety measures are strongly recommended:

  • Always wear protective gear – especially a helmet – when riding ATVs. Head injuries are by far the leading cause of death and disability related to ATV crashes. Helmets are known to reduce head injuries by 85%. Wear a motorcycle or motorized sports helmet and make sure it is certified by the U.S. Department of Transportation or the Snell Memorial Foundation.
  • Avoid driving ATVs with a passenger or riding as a passenger. The majority of ATVs are designed to carry only one person.
  • Take a hands-on safety training course if one is available in your area.
  • Do not drive ATVs on paved roads because they are difficult to control. Collisions with cars and other vehicles can be deadly.
  • Do not permit children to drive or ride adult ATVs. Children are involved in about one-third of all ATV-related deaths and hospital emergency room injuries. Most of these deaths and injuries occur when a child is driving or riding on an adult ATV.