“Where can I legally ride my ATV (All Terrain Vehicle)?” and “where can I legally take my kids riding?” are the most common questions Wayne Laakso is asked by parents. Laakso is a safety training coordinator for ATV safety training classes for children 11 to 15 years old and has been teaching the class all over Minnesota for 11 years.
Laakso and a group of youngsters (and most of their parents) met at Cloquet’s Pine Valley on June 20 for a classroom session on ATV safety followed by hands-on training and testing for the students. Anybody born after July 1, 1987 is required to take an ATV training class.
Laakso, who is also an active member of the North Shore ATV Club, believes that educating youth is the key to improving safety for future generations of ATV drivers.
The safety training class is made up of three sections:, online, classroom and the riding test. After the student passes all three they receive their certification and can legally ride with an adult off of their property.
Laakso teaches both the classroom and the riding class, which immediately follows the classroom instruction. His assistants set up the obstacle course while Laakso teaches inside. They set up orange barrels and cones for the students to maneuver their ATVs around, lay down a pallet for the students to ride over and have a ramp to simulate a small hill for the students to drive up.
Instructors are available at different points in the obstacle course to explain what is expected of the students and help them, whether it is to get unstuck or back up in a tight spot that simulates a small space between trees. The instructor explained to the students that it’s important to be able to back between the trees so they do not rip the bark off and possibly kill the tree.
In the classroom the students learn a variety of things such as why they should not drive off trails into long grass (because that’s where wildlife hide) and the meaning of the signs marking the trails.
“Don’t drive in the tall grass, you’ll run over a bunny or something,” Laakso said.
“I strongly urge parents not to buy a helmet form a rummage sale unless you know the person who is selling it,” he continued. “You can't tell if it's been in an accident and plastic does get fatigued when it gets older.”
Laakso explained to the attentive youth how important it is to help keep water clean and not to drive through it and transfer problems from the ATV downstream. He explained the different signs to the kids and how to tell which ones mean ATVs are allowed on that particular trail.
“When you’re in public you respect public and behave yourself,” Laakso said. “Otherwise people like me lose our trail.”
Laakso explained to the full class of students how important it is to have an ATV that fits the person and is not too large.
“I learned some hand signals,” said Abby McKay from Wrenshall. The 12-year-old had just completed her final class and received her certification. She has been riding around her parents’ property for years and thought the riding part of the class was fairly easy.
Her friend, Jenna Sibik from Brookston, agreed. She also had been driving an ATV on her family's property for many years, but wanted to be able to drive on the trails to the hunting shack.
“I didn't know the hand signal for stop,” Sibik said.
Laakso believes the class makes a difference. In the 11 years he has been teaching, he has taught 85 classes and had 17,000 kids come through. He admitted there is a lot of information and it may not all sink in right away during the class, but as the kids gain real-life experience the training will make sense to them.
Laakso has noticed that since the safety class has been implemented, youth injuries have dropped and some of the restrictions in ATV use have been eased up.
Parental supervision is key, according to Laakso.
Most of the times the classes run smoothly but every once in a while a student will feel the need to show off during the riding portion of the class. In the last class in Cloquet, Laakso was almost run over by one of the students doing just that.
“If we can save a life, a couple of hours of our time volunteering is worth it,” Laakso said.
ATV ETIQUETTE AND RULES OF THE ROAD
ATVs are utilized in a variety of capacities and are an integral part of life for many people. They are commonly used on farms, used for yard work, hauling hunting supplies to the shack as well as competing and just plain old pleasure rides.
According to the Cloquet City Code, ATVs are defined as “a motorized flotation-tired vehicle of not less than three low pressure tires but not more than six tires that is limited in engine displacement of less than 800 cubic centimeters and total dry weight of less than 900 pounds.”
The three-wheeler ATV was born in 1968 as the Sperry-Rand Tricart, but was short lived according to motosport.com. Honda began producing ATVs in 1970 and they became popular as people discovered the many ways the vehicle could make their life easier.
The introduction of the Suzuki Quadrunner marked the ending of an era and the turning of the page for ATVs. The first Suzuki four-wheeler debuted in 1982 and three years later the three-wheelers were banned due to safety issues. Owners can keep using their three-wheelers, but to manufacture more has been banned.
While four-wheelers are safer than their three-wheeled predecessor, they can still be dangerous if not used properly. The machine has a high center of gravity, high ground clearance and a narrow wheelbase which can cause instability and roll-overs on hillsides or when turning.
Another reason for ATV accidents on roads that some users may not be aware of is that ATVs are built to have low pressure off-road tires. That can increase the risk of losing control on pavement or hard packed surfaces, according to the DNR Recreational Trail Guide for Off-Highway Vehicles.
Because of their widespread popularity they are also sometimes a nuisance when people choose to ignore laws and drive where they are not allowed or in an unsafe manner.
“Some of the places they ride and how they ride upset me,” said Fred Little, Cloquet resident. “Too many people drive irresponsibly in town.”
The former mayor lives next to Pinehurst Park where four-wheelers have created a trail into the park. He hastily added that he has his own four-wheeler, so he is not against ATVs, just the way they are driven in town by some people.
Even though many people own and drive ATVs, many are not familiar with local laws or how to understand the signs set up by the city or DNR to designate ATV trails across the state. Section 5.6 of the City Code addresses ATV use in the city limits. It says ATV vehicles are not allowed on private property without permission from the owner. Places designated for ATV use in the city limits are marked with signs normally used in highway traffic regulation by the city.
For more information about the ATV Safety Training visit http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/safety/vehicle/atv/index.html. To find where the closest ATV trails are visit www.findthetrails.com.