May 11, 2011

And Now for Something Completely Different

Any of you who have ventured over to the "About the Authors" page may have noticed that I mention as part of my bio that I was a professional ATV rider for a time. and no, I wasn't a racer.

Instead, I worked for a electrical utilities subcontractor in one of a pair of two-man teams that journeyed across the back-country of southern New York building detailed GPS maps of high-voltage, power lines for Central Hudson. We would go out in teams of two ATVs (quads, four wheelers, whatever), map the position of the towers, note any erosion, damage or vandalism, and mark access points. The goal of the work was to make it far easier for power crews to know what they were getting into when trying to fix a downed line, and to note any priority maintenance work that needed to take place.

It was exhausting work, man-handling an ATV through swamps and brush and mountains nine hours a day, but it was also rewarding. I was out in nature, could easily measure my accomplishments at the end of the day, and was learning how to ride through experience in fairly extreme conditions to the tune of 100 miles a week of back-country riding.

Did you catch the "learning how to ride" part?

I'd never been on a quad before I took the job, and it was a crash course education (pun intended), to be sure. I remember my first ride started with me having to crawl down the rock-covered face of a slope beside a train trestle, across a cold water creek, and up the other side. It only got more interesting from there (remind me to relate the story of when I parked on a bear some time).

Miraculously, I survived the several thousand miles I road that summer and fall, even though I managed to sink my quad in a bog (pulling it out was not fun), rolled it twice, was thrown from it once, and had to go down a mountain face without brakes when they partially failed.

It was kind of odd, but New York didn't require any sort of training (much less licensing) to do the kind of riding I was doing. This is the same state that wants to outlaw salt and certain kinds of fast food. They were fine with me muscling a Honda Rancher ES 350 through state forests, public right-of-ways, and even around reservoirs guarded by DHS.

I never really thought about the lack of regulations or training until an advertiser asked if I would put up a link to their site promoting ATV tests last night. Apparently, certifications are apparently required by law in Iowa, Massachusetts, Montana, and New Mexico to ride on public lands, and the site provides study guides and the tests online.

So yeah, while this advertiser is marketing a product, they did get me wondering about why so few states require any sort of training to ride off-road, when it is both potentially much more dangerous than riding on-road, and capable of doing significant environmental damage if done irresponsibly.

The two times I rolled my quad were matters of bad judgement. The first time I misjudged the angle of a slope and I luckily rolled off the high side. the second time I thought the quad would push down a sapling in a dense section of brush, and instead, it just pitched the quad over. I'm not sure that in 2000 miles of riding through the kind of terrain I was covering that training could have helped either one of those incidents.

Oddly enough, the one time I really got banged up was the result of an accident that might have been prevented if I'd been alerted by a course such those offered at the link.

The high-voltage lines we were mapping were typically the big steel towers, and the vehicles used to put in those towers and service them are big pieces of equipment, and occasionally left big ruts in soft wet ground. When that ground dried out, it can turn a rut into a launch pad for unsuspecting riders, and that is precisely what happened. My front wheel entered a dip and I pitched forward, and them as the rear dropped as the quad clawed its way out I was thrown back, and as the rear of the quad lifted as I was leaning backward, up back and off I went, landing awkwardly and nearly breaking my arm.

Would a riding course have alerted me to how an ATV might pitch and buck in that sort of circumstance, and have given me a better idea of what to expect?

Would an ATV course have given me a better idea of how to negotiate a path down the side of a mountain after experiencing a partial brake failure?

I don't know.

In theory, however, I do like the idea of ATV certifications purely as a way of addressing safety concerns. The fact these states seem to have an eye on teaching rider how "tread lightly" is also admirable.

I'll be interested to see if these programs take off in other states, and to see how fairs in accomplishing the goals the states have laid out.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at May 11, 2011 10:30 AM

"Miraculously, I survived the several thousand miles I road that summer and fall"
rode, not road.....

Posted by: REB In Raleigh at May 11, 2011 07:24 PM

I am always suspicious of "Government Required Courses". Few if any of them do an adequate job of teaching what you need to know. I've had three kids attend required Drivers Education Courses in three different States (Home is where the Navy sends you). None of them taught the kids how to deal with situations they are bound to have to deal with; How to jump start a car, how to act when pulled over, especially at night, how to jack up a car, how to change a flat, what to do (and NOT to do) when a car overheats, what information to get (and to give) when involved in an accident.
The only "Safety Courses" I've run into that were worth a damn were courses run or recommended by various Insurance. I'm sure there was an ATV Safety Course you could have taken back then, and I feel fairly safe in thinking that you didn't look for one because you thought it would never happen to you and/or you didn't want to pay for it out of your pocket.
If we "have" to take a course, we don't get out of it nearly as much as when we search out and take a course because we want to/think we need to. Not to mention that those "freebies" usually cost somebod(ies)y more than what they are worth.

Posted by: Wildman7316 at May 11, 2011 10:42 PM

My own bugbear is "personal watercraft." As a professional mariner I despise recreational sailors, and as a recreational sailor I abominate personal watercraft. Any yahoo with a credit card can rent one (and most of them do) and endanger everyone afloat within a ten mile radius.

Our local sheriff has said that most of the Jet Ski accidents his department responds to are of them plowing full speed into an obstacle, pier, boat, another jet ski. An untrained rider's first response when in trouble is to release the throttle. Since they are steered by the waterjet, that means you are now sitting on an unguided missile moving at 40 knots towards whatever it is you didn't want to hit.

I am in absolute favor of mandatory training and licensing to rent one of those death sleds, and immediate execution for any rider who endangers anyone else.

Posted by: Steve Skubinna at May 12, 2011 01:21 AM