Backover injuries are sending 65 kids a year to the emergency room. And many are blaming the manufacturers of riding lawn mowers.

riding lawn mower
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

June 18, 2019

The loud hum of lawn mowers is one of the most recognizable sounds of summertime. But this common household machine can also become a nightmare for families.

The reason? Kids across the country are getting injured from them each year. The numbers are terrifying: More than 212,000 children under 18 years old were sent to the emergency room for lawn mower-related injuries between 1990 and 2014 in the U.S., according to a report published by the American Journal of Emergency Medicine in 2017.

Burns are a common reason. But more severe, and sometimes deadly, injuries occur from riding mowers that go in reverse. There are about 65 backover injuries a year and the majority of those injured are under 5 years old, the report found. And as FairWarning (a nonprofit news organization in California) pointed out in a recent article, specific designs by manufacturers are making it easy for these injuries to continue to happen to kids.

In 2003, the mower industry put the no-mow-in-reverse feature into effect, which required blades to stop spinning when going backwards. At the same time, manufacturers are still permitted to include override buttons or switches for this feature. The override “is a concession to consumers who want flexibility when they mow," representatives for lawn mower companies told FairWarning. The article also pointed out the Consumer Product Safety Commission created a mandatory standard for walk-behind power mowers in the 1980s but not for riding mowers. And the agency doesn't have plans to tackle the issue of backover injuries anytime soon.

“[These incidents] happen more often than people think,” says Tracy Mehan, manager of translational research with the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “And unfortunately with these injuries, there are very serious consequences.” That includes finger, toe, and leg amputations as a result of the mower’s blades spinning at nearly 200 mph. These types of injuries usually also require many surgeries. 

Another devastating fact: it’s oftentimes a relative of the child who has run them over. Stephanie Flohr has seen her share of those cases as the manager of the trauma program at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "A family member was on the mower and didn’t realize there was a child who had run out behind them," she says.

Many feel these tragedies could be prevented if manufacturers stepped in. One big step would be changing the location of the override button, which is typically located in the front of the machine. “We would love to see the manufacturers put the override button behind the [lawn mower operator],” says Mehan. “That’s going to force you to have to turn around before you disengage.” Others question if going in reverse should be an option at all. 

But until the industry steps in, experts say parents should try to make the yard a child-free zone once lawn mowers are turned on by keeping kids up to 6 years old inside the house. They point out even being near the mowers can be dangerous since these machines can cause objects like rocks and sticks to fly across the lawn. "They can project at speeds of up to 200 miles an hour," says Flohr. “It can really do significant damage."

Also, never bring your child on the lawn mower with you, despite how fun it might seem, says Mehan. Doing that makes it hard for kids to distinguish between play and work time. "When they see a parent or uncle or aunt on the lawn mower and they don’t think this is a danger, they may run out because they want to ride like they normally would," says Mehan. And that can be the moment when tragedy strikes.