Originally designed and sold for multipurpose utility and recreational use, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) first appeared in Canada in the 1970s. Today they are used throughout North America in the farming, forestry, natural resource and law enforcement industries and are increasingly popular for adventure tourism, recreational trail riding and camping. In the last decade, in fact, Canadian sales of ATVs have tripled, topping $1.08 billion in 2007, or more than 88,000 vehicles, according to the Canadian Off-Highway Vehicle Distributors Council (COHV). Per capita, Canada is now the largest ATV market in the world, and Alberta is leading the provinces with more than 22,100 sold annually – 25 per cent of the total purchased across Canada. More than 2.5 million Canadians now ride ATVs and at least 850,000 own one.
However, on the heels of an alarming surge over the last 10 years in ATV-related deaths and injuries, groups such as the Canadian Paediatric Society and Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research (ACICR) are calling for an overhaul of ATV rider regulations. Manufacturers, meanwhile, reject demands for additional legislation, arguing that formal instruction, size-appropriate units and improved adult supervision are the best ways to make ATVs safer. This, despite the fact that most safety organizations, including the Canada Safety Council (CSC), report that many ATV-related injuries are preventable with appropriate regulations – and that the situation is urgent given that ATV-related hospitalizations have jumped 72 per cent over the last decade (researchers point to speed, alcohol, inexperience, improper apparel and non-use of helmets as the culprits). Bottom line, say the experts: among sports- and recreation-related activities, ATV-related pursuits are now the third most common cause of severe injury (after cycling and snowmobiling). And they note that the demographic most affected is males aged 15 to 19 – considerably younger than the 53-year-old average most commonly associated with trauma admissions to Canadian hospitals.
Yet despite such grim statistics, “the law has so far maintained a relatively liberal approach with ATVs and snowmobiles, compared to how it regulates the use of motorcycles and automobiles,” says Scott Wilson, AMA policy development manager. “The Traffic Safety Act deals only with vehicles used on-road, such as automobiles and motorcycles, and not with off-road vehicles – which don’t have specific licensing requirements and aren’t subject to any graduated licensing system.” Also, the regulations in Canada vary from province to province. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland have a minimum operator age of 16, with some jurisdictions also requiring the completion of training programs. But in Alberta, ATV and snowmobile operators must be only 14 years or older or be supervised by an adult 18 or older – except when the ATV is on private property and then there is no age restriction. Also, Alberta does not have a training program requirement and its minimum age applies only to public roads and lands. Furthermore, Alberta and B.C. are the only provinces that do not require ATV and snowmobile operators to wear a helmet.
This kind of patchwork approach is a far cry from what safety experts would like to see. Though the CSC remains opposed to a ban on ATV use by youngsters age 15 and under (the logic being it would drive many young drivers “underground”), most safety organizations are advocating for better training and the mandating of age-appropriate machines for children and teens. As the Canadian All Terrain Vehicle Distributors Council (COHV) – formerly the Canadian Off-Highway Vehicle Distributors Council – advises, most would also like to see ATV drivers and passengers required to wear an approved motorcycle helmet, eye protection, boots, gloves, long pants and long-sleeve shirt or jacket, and children aged six to 11 riding vehicles no more powerful than 70 cc; youngsters age 12 to 15, 70 to 90 cc. “To put a 16-year-old on an adult-sized ATV when that rider has no previous experience or training can lead to disaster,” says COHV’s Jo-Anne Farquhar, which is why we believe mandatory training should be part of any legislation.” Most ATV-related injuries, she notes, are due to drivers not having proper training or using machines too powerful for their skill set.
Earlier this year, the Canadian Association of Paediatric Surgeons also called for a ban on ATV use for youngsters age 15 and under, citing the mounting toll in death and injury among young people due to increased ATV use. “When recreation becomes lethal or results in permanent disability . . . it can no longer be considered fun,” stated the association in its press release. Its stance is well supported by University of Alberta public health researchers Kathy Belton and Leah Phillips, whose 2008 study urges parents to keep young children off ATVs altogether. The machines weigh between 70 and 270 kilograms, notes Phillips, co-director of the Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research, making them seven to eight times heavier than most children aged 15 and under. “The machines also go fast and are not stable for little kids – whether they’re drivers or passengers,” says Belton, given that youngsters lack the skill, strength, maturity and cognitive and motor skills to operate them safely. The pair’s research shows an 83 per cent increase in ATV-related deaths in Alberta between 2005 and 2006, and that between 2002 and 2006, 10 children under the age of 16 and seven youths aged 16 to 19 died in ATV-related incidents.
Further, the Belton-Phillips research indicates that many ATV-related deaths are related to alcohol impairment and the refusal to wear a helmet. Of those who died on ATVs in 2005 and 2006, for example, 66 per cent were not wearing helmets and another three per cent were wearing them improperly. Fifty-eight per cent of the toxicology results for victims tested also came up positive for alcohol use, including 72 per cent of the males and all of the females screened. Also, 45 per cent of the deaths were the result of an ATV rolling or flipping; hitting a tree or another object was the second leading cause of death.
As for geography and the stats, Alberta’s Peace River region has racked up a particularly high rate of visits to hospitals for ATV-related injuries, with 560 per 100,000 residents – double the overall rural rate. The exact reason is unclear. But Phillips says the pair’s research does clearly conclude that awareness campaigns need to specifically target males aged 15 to 34 and the province’s rural population, in addition to the need for helmets and the dangers of driving under the influence. Basically, she says, “Helmets should be mandatory for ATV riders of all ages and alcohol should never be consumed before – or while – riding an ATV.”
Rules of the off-road
- Ride off-road only, never on public roads.
- Respect parks and protected areas and ride only where ATVs are allowed.
- Ride sober — no alcohol or drugs.
- Know your ATV owner’s manual.
- Wear a government-approved helmet, eye protection and appropriate clothing.
- Complete an approved training program, such as the Canada Safety Council’s ATV rider course.
- Ride with others — never alone.
- Follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding passengers and recommended ages for riders.
- Always supervise youngsters.
- Keep noise levels low by avoiding full-throttle acceleration and over-revving the engine.
- Lend ATVs to skilled riders only.
- Watch for potential hazards and ride at a reasonable speed for the terrain.
Ride within your skill set.