Person driving a go kart in the dirt

Your mother always warned you how dangerous motorcycles are. But what were her thoughts on go-karts, and are go-karts dangerous?

These machines have also been enshrouded by an air of danger, and for good reason: small, fast, and exposed, go-karts aren’t exactly protective cocoons. But how dangerous are go-karts really?

We wanted to dig a bit deeper into what makes a go-kart such a risky thing to operate. We were also curious about how perilous they are relative to similar machines, such as ATVs. Our research uncovered some interesting data to help quantify how dangerous go-karts really are.

How Dangerous Are Go-Karts?

Child driving an electric go kart

Like anything else involving speed and moving parts, go-karts come with an inherent degree of risk. Considering they can typically travel up to speeds of 40-50 mph, one wrong move can have nasty consequences.1

This is especially true with children, who often are tossed the keys to the family go-kart well before they’ve reached the legal age to drive an automobile. In 2014, children constituted forty percent of that year’s 11,000 karting-related ER visits.2

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission also conducted a comprehensive study on go-kart safety between 1985 and 1996, during which time over 125,000 people were hospitalized for go-kart injuries. In this study, the agency found that about 65 percent of those injured were children.3

Those are some sobering statistics, and the takeaway is clear: don’t let kids on go-karts without the proper safety gear and training. Go-karts are potent machines that require a certain level of knowledge to operate safely; children left to learn a go-kart’s idiosyncrasies for themselves are bound to make a mistake – and in a machine this unprotected, one mistake can be lethal. As much as they might beg, don’t let children take the wheel until they are old enough to understand the capability and consequences of a go-kart.

Of course, adults aren’t off the hook here, making up that other 35% of injuries in the 12-year study.4 While children can blame inexperience and their developing spatial awareness for their mishaps, adults don’t have that luxury. Those old enough to know better are more likely to fall into the trap of becoming overly confident, leading to careless mistakes that result in big injuries.

And while we shouldn’t have to say this, we’ll mention it anyway: don’t operate a go-kart – or any machinery – while intoxicated or otherwise under the influence. This doesn’t fly when driving on a car on public roads, and it doesn’t on the trail, at a go-kart track, or in your driveway. Be smart and kart sober.

What Are The Most Common Go-Kart Injuries?

In the 12-year Consumer Product Safety Commission study cited earlier, it was reported that 21 percent of injuries were related to the head and face, while 38 percent were upper body injuries. 35 percent of injuries were to the lower body.5

This breakout makes sense. Neglect to wear a seatbelt or helmet, and any sort of accident is likely to throw you against the frame of the go-kart or right into the steering wheel. This study also found that the two most common types of accidents in 1996 were collisions and ejections, which are more likely to cause injury to your face, head, and upper body than anywhere else.6

More recently, USA Today noted that in 2014 head trauma was common among those admitted to the ER for go-kart injuries.7 It all points to something our parents once admonished us time and again: wear your helmet. It might not feel cool in the moment, but the proper protection can truly make all the difference if and when things go (literally) sideways.

Interestingly, the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that the least common injury was entrapment – getting hair or clothing trapped in one of the go-kart’s components, such as the engine or drivetrain. According to the study, just 4 percent of injuries could be attributable to this type of incident.8

Are Go-Karts Safer Than ATVs?

Woman driving a go kart on the beach at sunset

If you’ve already our all-encompassing article on the legality of go-karts, you know that the popular off-road vehicles known as side-by-sides qualify as a go-kart. These machines pose some similarities to ATVs, but they aren’t the same, as ATVs utilize an entirely different method of construction and operation; their steering system and riding position essentially make them more akin to motorcycles. Side-by-sides are more carlike with their passenger compartment and operator controls.9 So which is safer?

Because of their construction, go-karts win this round. As we mentioned, ATVs are similar to motorcycles: you perch atop them and steer with the handlebars. That combo makes for a dangerously high center of gravity and – at least for those without much motorcycle experience – less intuitive steering. One wrong move and you can pitch yourself over – and odds are good you’ll be the landing pad for your airborne, somersaulting ATV.

With its carlike controls, lower center of gravity, and larger size, the side-by-side is much easier to control. With its weight much lower in the vehicle, tipping it or pitching it over becomes that much more difficult. The driver is also using traditional automotive controls like pedals and a steering wheel. By sitting inside an exoskeleton, side-by-sides are more likely to protect their occupants in a rollover – as long as the seatbelts are being worn.

If safety is a top priority as you cross-shop these mud-slingers, the side-by-side is the one you’ll want. With its more protective construction and familiar controls, this UTV is less likely to surprise you on the trail.

Parting Thoughts

What makes a go-kart fun – size, speed, nimbleness, exposure – is also what makes it so dangerous. However, the danger can be mitigated by keeping in mind the following:

  • If you’re a parent, the smartest thing to do is not let your children operate a go-kart until they are old enough to do so responsibly. Children remain most prone to go-kart injuries by a wide margin.
  • All operators of any age should wear their helmet and seatbelt. These two simple efforts can be enough to save your life, or at the very least save you from weeks of recovering from a nasty, preventable injury.
  • Safety-conscious should opt for a side-by-side rather than an ATV due to its safer construction and more predictable controls.

Just because go-karts are dangerous doesn’t mean they can’t be enjoyed safely. With the right precautions, you can have a safe, fun time exploiting the capabilities of your go-kart – no ER visit required.

Article Sources

Ride Digest uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Lehigh Valley Grand Prix. Go-Kart Speed Basics. Lehighvalleygrandprix.com. Published February 8, 2018. Accessed April 22, 2021.
  2. ABC News. Tips on how to be safe while riding go-karts. Usatoday.com. Published June 10, 2015. Accessed April 22, 2021.
  3. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Go-Cart/Fun-Kart Related Injuries and Deaths, 1985-1996. Cpsc.gov. Published January 7, 1998. Accessed April 22, 2021.
  4. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Go-Cart/Fun-Kart Related Injuries and Deaths, 1985-1996. Cpsc.gov. Published January 7, 1998. Accessed April 22, 2021.
  5. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Go-Cart/Fun-Kart Related Injuries and Deaths, 1985-1996. Cpsc.gov. Published January 7, 1998. Accessed April 22, 2021.
  6. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Go-Cart/Fun-Kart Related Injuries and Deaths, 1985-1996. Cpsc.gov. Published January 7, 1998. Accessed April 22, 2021.
  7. ABC News. Tips on how to be safe while riding go-karts. Usatoday.com. Published June 10, 2015. Accessed April 22, 2021.
  8. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Go-Cart/Fun-Kart Related Injuries and Deaths, 1985-1996. Cpsc.gov. Published January 7, 1998. Accessed April 22, 2021.
  9. Go Kart Guide. Go-Kart vs ATV: Are They the Same? Gokartguide.com. Accessed April 20, 2021.