Dirt Biking Dangers: Is it a safe family sport?

Dirt bike rider going around a turn wearing a red jersey.

I’m a parent and was concerned about getting into dirt biking for both myself and especially my two boys and wife.  I had heard of others who got injuries from dirt biking, so I wanted to do some research to find out, statistically, if it’s really a dangerous sport.

Dirt biking can absolutely be a dangerous sport.  However, there are many different uses for dirt bikes and ways for them to be enjoyed.  Statistics show that a few changes to the way you ride can DRAMATICALLY reduce the risk of injury and–I believe–make dirt biking a safe sport for kids and adults to enjoy.

The real question we should be asking is not if dirt bike riding has risks.  Of course it does!   So too does riding a bicycle, playing football, or swimming at the beach.  The real question is matching the risks of an activity with your risk tolerance.  We all know as parents that we could keep our kids inside playing video games and sleeping all day, and they would have nearly no risk of injury.  But is that what we want our kids to become?

At the same time, I obviously don’t want to put my children in harm’s way.  So before I began buying dirt bikes for my kids, my wife, and myself, I studied out the risks.  In the end, I found that dirt biking is a relatively safe activity as long as certain precautions are taken.

I also point out that this article mentions four wheelers and dirt bike racing as riskier than trail riding on dirt bikes.  While statistics do support these points, I want to make it clear that I am not saying those activities are in any way irresponsible.  I’m merely pointing out that statistics show it’s riskier, and you can decide for yourself if you find that matches your risk tolerance or not.

Interesting Statistics on Dirt Bike Riding Injuries

The statistics below can be an EXCELLENT resource for understanding how slight changes in the way you ride and enjoy dirt biking can cut your risk of serious injury immensely.   If you simply ride trails rather than race, always wear all protective gear when riding, don’t drink when enjoying dirt bikes, and don’t ride a dirt bike with more power than your skill level or age, your risk of serious injury is cut to a tiny percentage.

Again, everything we do has certain risks.  Hopefully, the statistics below will help you to decide how you can enjoy a dirt bike and meet your personal risk tolerance.

  • More than half of dirt bike injuries ending in a hospital stay are from dirt bike racing at an official track–even though only a small percentage of all dirt bike use is at an official track or race. This shows that “motocross”, racing, and jumping are far more dangerous than trail riding. (Source)
  • ATV-related deaths have dropped 30% from 2006 – 2012.  The trend from 2012 to 2017 has stayed at a constant low.
  • Only 15% of ATV-related deaths occurred in the forest or desert.  Most occurred on paved roads (33%) or unpaved roads (19%).  (Source)
  • Victims of four-wheeler ATV crashes were 50 percent more likely to die of their injuries than victims in dirt bike crashes.  This point is discussed in greater detail below. (Source)
  • 1/5 ATV related deaths is to a child under 16 years of age.  Another study found the number to be closer to 35% (Source).
  • Alcohol is a factor in almost 50% of fatalities (Source)
  • More than 60% of deaths occurred in persons not wearing a helmet–despite the fact that helmet use is very high among dirt bike riders (Source)
  • 90.5% of ATV-related death cases are male victims (Source)
  • Traumatic brain injury caused by ATV use was caused by a collision with a stationary object in 27% of cases.  Riding near trees has risk. (Source)
  • When dirt biking results in a broken bone, there is a 29% chance that bone will be a femur fracture, which is the most common break for a dirt bike accident.  Overall, 65% of bone fractures from dirt biking are below the waist. (Source)

Dirt Bike Riding Is Safer Than ATV (Four Wheeler) Riding

The fact is, as mentioned above, that four wheeler crashes are 50% more likely to end in fatality than dirt bike crashes.  There is a growing trend amongst dirt riding enthusiasts who see dirt biking as being unsafe, so they instead buy ATVs.  This is not a well-informed decision.  ATVs seem safer than dirt bikes because they are far more stable and less likely to crash; however, research and statistics are proving over and over again that ATV riding crashes are far more deadly and more injurious than dirt bike crashes.

There are several reasons for why ATV crashes are more dangerous than dirt bike crashes: (1) ATVs are very heavy and can crush the driver when in a crash, (2) An ATV is physically larger and so there is a higher chance of the driver hitting on the vehicle instead of being thrown free, and (3) Drivers of ATVs may go faster because they feel more confident on a stable four-wheeled vehicle.  While each of these reasons may contribute to the problem, I personally believe that the heavy rollover weight of an ATV is the problem.  The A four-wheeler often weighs between 650 and 850 pounds.

A four-wheeler often weighs between 650 and 850 pounds.  Suppose a rider goes through a steep turn and the ATV rolls on top of him.  Not only is the 800-pound weight of a metal ATV coming at the victim, but it comes with momentum and force.  With that much weight and force, it would be unlikely that the rider would walk away from it.

Studies have also shown that four-wheeler riders are far less likely to wear a full set of safety gear.  In fact, even helmet use is far less common on ATVs than on dirt bikes.  This is likely because the riders have the illusion of safety on four wheels.  However, even taking this obvious risk factor into consideration, several studies have shown that this factor alone did not account for the far higher risk of fatality on a four wheeler compared to dirt bikes.

How Our Family Chooses to Stay Safe While Dirt Bike Riding

Taking the statistics above into account, I made some changes to how my family and I enjoy our dirt riding adventures.  I want to point out again that you can certainly decide differently.  Want to ride a four wheeler on a race track with no helmet?  That’s perfectly fine.  The point I’m trying to make is that each person should just understand the statistical risks and make your own decision.

For us, however, we decided on a few things which DRAMATICALLY reduce our risk of being seriously injured while riding.

  • Our family decided to buy dirt bikes instead of ATVs.  According to statistics, this makes us 50% less likely to die in an off-road accident.
  • We don’t ride on paved roads and we avoid dirt roads if cars travel on them.  This cuts out a significant portion of accidents, which are collisions with vehicles.
  • Sometimes we take little jumps off a little berm or dirt mound and fly 3 feet off the ground or so, but we typically don’t ride at official tracks where we’d be taking larger jumps.  Over half of hospital stays from dirt biking were from riding at official dirt bike tracks.  This statistic is really amazing when you consider that the vast majority of dirt bike use does not happen at an official track.
  • All the gear, all the time (ATGAT).  Click to see the cheapest safety gear we’ve found for our kids that is good quality.
  • We choose dirt bikes for the kids that are properly sized for them, and don’t let them ride bikes that are too large or powerful.

I’m sure some people will see those decisions we’ve made and think we’re a little too risk averse.  I’m an attorney, so that’s probably true 🙂  I worry too much.  But I can tell you that it doesn’t seem to stop our enjoyment of dirt biking at all.  The entire family enjoys ripping up the dirt and flying around turns out in the desert south of Boise.  We absolutely love it.

If you’re new to the site, check out the other sections of the site.  We have TONS of great information for new riders on choosing the best dirt bikes for kids, what gear to get, etc.

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