Can’t all-terrain and task vehicles be made safer?

Despite repeated safety warnings, the number of deaths related to ATV and UTV vehicle rollovers persists.

Alberta, the province with the most ATV/UTV-related deaths on the Prairies, reported 185 deaths from 2002-13. In Saskatchewan, 25 people died from 2013-16 and 28 died in Manitoba during that same period.

The deaths include those related to all-terrain vehicle and utility task vehicle use.

According to health experts and safety instructors, there is little else manufacturers can do to build in more safety. At some point, safety comes down to the operators and their parents or guardians.

“Complacency is a great killer,” said Glen Blahey, an agricultural health and safety specialist with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association.

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“From a safety perspective, the vehicles are safe, if not safer, than they were. But, really, the determinant is the person who is in control and operating that ATV.”

He said if you fall off while not wearing a helmet, “you’re dead.”

The machines aren’t more dangerous than they were years ago, but Blahey urges all riders to take training courses, wear helmets and proper gear, and ensure they are big enough and competent enough to handle the vehicle in the environment they are riding in.

Kathy Belton, associate director of the Injury Prevention Centre at the University of Alberta, which specializes in ATV safety, said she thinks parents are becoming more knowledgeable about the risks associated with ATVs, so if there is an improvement in the accident statistics, it would likely be attributable to that.

The Injury Prevention Centre came out with an ATV injury report in 2014 that showed 77 percent of Albertans who died of head injuries weren’t wearing a helmet, 16 percent of all deaths were among children younger than 16, and hospitals experienced about 6,000 visits each year in relation to off-highway vehicle incidents.

As well, ATVs can weigh upwards of 320 kilograms and go more than 80 km-h.

Blahey said it’s vital that young people especially are properly trained and capable before they are allowed to ride.

“If you take a five-year-old and put them on a little 50 cc ATV or an electric ATV, can they operate it? Yes, but that doesn’t mean that just because they can operate that little toy electric ATV that they can sit down on a 750 cc and operate it,” he said.

Belton agreed that operators should not be on machines that massively outweigh them.

The problem, though, is that adults and children continue to die despite these warnings.

Some parents have wondered whether their children would be alive today had the ATV been equipped with additional safety mechanisms. Some garden tractors don’t start unless a heavy-enough person is in the driver’s seat.

Belton said ATVs could be equipped with similar safety features, but if they were, it would defeat their original purpose as farm tools or speedy terrain vehicles.

“This one is really hard because there is only so much engineering you can do,” she said

“We’ve already banned the three-wheeler because they were more likely to tip over.”

Blahey agreed it would be difficult to equip quads with such lockout devices because the seats need to be flexible for the machine to stabilize.

“The biggest determinant of safety is not the machine itself, but the people who are in control of it,” he said.

However, Belton said specialists have recently been analyzing the effectiveness of crush protection devices. Some of them look like a giant bobby-pin that’s attached to the back of the quad.

The protection device works like a wedge where if the ATV rolls over, the device hits the ground first, creating space between the machine and the driver so he or she doesn’t get crushed.

“Rollovers and flips have accounted for more than 50 percent of fatalities, so it’s a pretty big issue,” Belton said.

“So, if parents are buying their kids an ATV, they have to make sure they’re buying the right size. There is evidence coming out that’s showing smaller size ATVs will reduce risk, but we have to remember that these are not toys.”

David Marko, the Alberta chief instructor with the Canadian All-Terrain Quad Council of Canada Safety Institute, highlighted the importance for drivers to take the proper courses.

He teaches courses for kids six and older. Children from ages 6 to 12 must be accompanied by a parent.

He said the course is also helpful for the parents, who may not understand all of the controls, he added.

“They figure it’s just hop on and ride, so this makes them more alert with what’s going on. And if you can get a child learning how to properly ride these at a younger age, they are lot safer than if they had no experience at the age of 16 and decided to jump on one.”

He said the machines are about as safe as they can get, but thinks it would be good if the prairie provinces mandated training.

“I know the Quebec and Ontario ATV federations pay for the classes,” he said. “So, I think that would be a great idea here, but again the dealerships would need to better promote it.”

Alberta has also recently changed its laws so everyone riding an ATV on public land must wear a helmet, which is in line with the rest of the country.

In Alberta, however, farmers aren’t required to wear helmets when working, although they should, according to Blahey.

“People die regardless of what they do for a living or who they are,” he said. “If protection has been proven to be effective, then why wouldn’t you wear it?”

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