MOORHEAD-A recent string of all-terrain vehicle crashes in western Minnesota involving young people has placed a spotlight on off-road vehicles and the rules governing who can ride them.

During May, at least four ATV crashes involving young riders happened in less than a week, including several incidents in Clay County, said Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist.

In one case, a 14-year-old boy escaped serious harm when the ATV he was riding struck the guide wire of a power pole and the ATV rolled.

In another incident, Bergquist said three young people were riding an ATV when it rolled. One of the riders was pinned beneath the machine for a time before being freed and airlifted to the hospital.

In another case, two girls were riding what is known as a side-by-side when the vehicle overturned.

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Bergquist said the riders were wearing seat belts and avoided serious injury.

While he said he's not sure what's behind the spate of incidents, Bergquist said speed often plays a role.

"They like to go fast," he said of young drivers. He speculated that inexperience may lead some riders to underestimate the danger of certain maneuvers, such as turning at high speed.

Bergquist added he has a feeling he hasn't seen the end of the crash streak.

"We're going to have a whole lot more," he predicted.

Statewide, ATV riders under 16 once led the statistics when it came to injuries and crashes. But in recent years, adults ages 50 and older have constituted the majority of injuries and fatalities in Minnesota, said Bruce Lawrence, recreational vehicle coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

As of May 11, the DNR had received reports of seven fatal crashes involving ATVs and an off-highway motorcycle. Of those incidents, three cases involved victims under 18, Lawrence said.

How safely a young person operates an ATV often depends on behaviors they saw modeled by parents, Lawrence said.

"ATVs are safe when operated at low speeds and when youth have positive parental guidance and mentorship," Lawrence said.

He said when ATV speeds are excessive, it's often because they're being driven where they are not supposed to be-on county and township roads.

ATVs aren't made to travel on hard surfaces like roads, he said, but instead on terrain such as trails, which keeps speeds down.

He said in many cases it is illegal for straddle-type ATVs to be driven on roadways.

In Minnesota, some of the rules that apply to young people and ATVs include:

• Kids under 10 may operate ATVs, but only on private property with permission of the owner.

• Kids 10 and 11 may operate ATVs on private property with permission of the owner, and they may operate ATVs with engine-sizes up to 90cc on public lands and frozen waters if accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.

• Youths ages 12-15 may operate ATVs on public lands and frozen waters, and they may make direct crossings of roadways with a valid safety certificate if accompanied on another ATV by a person 18 or older who has a valid driver's license. They may also operate an ATV on the bank, slope or ditch of a public road right-of-way or roadway open by local ordinance if they have a valid ATV safety certification and are accompanied by a parent or legal guardian on a separate ATV.

• Unless they are accompanied by a parent or legal guardian on a separate ATV, youths agess 16 and 17 must have a valid driver's license and ATV safety certification to make a direct crossing of a roadway, or to operate an ATV on a road right-of-way or roadway open by local ordinance.

Minnesota law also requires individuals born after July 1, 1987, to complete one of Minnesota's online ATV safety courses. In addition, people ages 12-15 are required to attend a hands-on ATV safety training course before operating an ATV on public lands, waters, road right-of-ways or state trails. The hands-on sessions are provided by DNR-trained instructors.

People 16 and older must complete a Minnesota online ATV course before operating an ATV on public lands, waters, road right-of-ways or state trails, but they are not required to complete a hands-on training session.

Lawrence said young ATV drivers should always ask permission from a parent or guardian before riding, and riding should be done under adult supervision.

He said youths also need to wear helmets and make sure they "fit" their ATV, meaning they must be able to reach all controls easily when seated properly.

He said many newer machines come with a feature called a "throttle back," which governs the machine's throttle to keep speeds low.

"My own kids learned on an ATV with this safety feature," Lawrence said.

"Gave them confidence and good practice on turning and going over obstacles."