child dirtI was recently asked if I thought it was safe for my child to ride in our UTV. I firmly replied with a “yes,” before launching into a laundry list of precautions we take to ensure that off road activities are a safe hobby for the whole family.

As any parent can relate, I love my child more than anything in the world. I would jump in front of a speeding bullet, oncoming train or undeniably certain death to ensure that he was safe. For that reason we take extraordinary precaution when it comes to our equipment and our riding. However, there will forever be individuals who question our choice to ride with our child.

Each year in the United States, children account for about 1/3 of the 130,000 – 150,000 ATV-related emergency room visits and almost ¼ of the average 800 ATV-related deaths each year. While specific statistics don’t include the types of vehicles, the numbers are still scary. With that in mind, I committed to serious research before we decided that off road motorsports were a hobby that we wanted to continue not only as individuals, but as a family.

In reviewing off road accidents, there are a number of common themes that come up: a lack of safety equipment, a lack of experience or the involvement of alcohol and other substances. All too often children ride machines on their own that do not meet rider fit requirements, or ride with friends or adults with no helmets, or hop in or on a vehicle after a night of seemingly harmless drinking at the campsite. Unfortunately, the vast majority of off road incidents involving children are preventable.

And while some may argue that not riding with your child at all is the best prevention, I believe that prohibiting our son from partaking in off-road motorsports only furthers the risk of exploration on his own when he’s out of our sight. For that reason, we’re using his younger years to set expectations around safe riding that I pray will stick with him for life.

Immediately after purchasing our UTV, we had a family outing to buy new helmets. Mom got one, Dad got one and our little guy got to pick out one that fit his head, didn’t fatigue his neck and met his standards for cool color schemes. While he initially did not want to wear it, I spent hours in the garage with him, wearing my helmet and encouraging him to try his. When that didn’t work, I offered an M&M in exchange for buckling it on. And bingo. It was on. Today, there’s no more M&M’s required. He knows that his helmet means he gets to ride and he’s the first one in the back of the truck, digging through gear bags to find his noggin protection.

This is one area where I stand firm. Helmets are a requirement. For me, for my family, for anyone riding with us. As a parent I feel it’s my job to lead by example and set the standard for safety while we’re having fun. Sure, if you’re a grown man and don’t want to wear one on your own machine, that’s your choice. However, if you’re under the roof of my roll cage, that choice no longer exists – especially for my child.

Beyond helmets, we’ve equipped our vehicle with the strongest aftermarket roll cage we could find, full harnesses and a specialty kid-sized 5-point harness for our son. His seat is custom built to fit his body and he knows that the doors must be shut before we can go.

Someday soon, we’ll have the discussion centered around his own dirtbike, and the safety precautions required there, but I have no doubt it will happen. With proper gear, proper training and lots of supervision.

I could come up with a way my kid could get hurt doing anything. But, in our family, he was exposed to off road motorsports from an early age and he fell in love. His interest is in watching trophy trucks and car builds moreso than Power Rangers or Ninja Turtles, so we will foster that love with knowledge, safety, proper equipment and positive influence. There will likely always be people who question this decision for “dirthead parents,” but if done correctly, I believe there’s no better time to introduce children to the basics of safety both around motorize vehicles and the great outdoors.