Kiwi ingenuity should be up to the task of finding something safer
Kiwi ingenuity could hold the answer to replacing the quad bike with something safer and more efficient. Our engineers have always provided innovative ways to transport farmers and their gear across the land, and there's some urgency to do so again. Quad bike crashes are reaching unacceptable levels.
Quad bikes use an inherently unstable design, first developed for low-powered recreational vehicles.
But over the years - and because of a lack of viable alternatives - this basic design has become the preferred workhorse for use out of doors. The biggest change has been that today's quad bikes are a lot more powerful.
Paediatric emergency specialist Dr Michael Shepherd has thought the problem through. "Having ridden two-wheelers round the family orchard since my youth, I realise farmers must have mobility," he says. "But surely there's a better vehicle for them to use. Some of the head, chest and abdominal injuries we see following quad bike crashes are horrific, in some cases resembling high-speed car crash injuries."
Modern quad bikes owe their ancestry to a family of three-wheeler ATVs developed back in the 1970s and the first of these - the ATC 90 - was inspired by a New Zealand off-road machine, called The Gnat.
Kiwis led the way when the only way to get around a farm was by tractor, horse or walking. New Zealanders designed The Gnat and the first-ever dedicated farm motorcycle, The Mountain Goat.
Once again, we need to give the big manufacturers a new idea, one that's worth producing in quantity.
Quad bikes do not just need a few cosmetic changes and it's not enough to simply substitute them with those vehicles called side-by-sides. These are the same basic four-wheeled idea, but with car type seats, a steering wheel and maybe a roll cage. But - like the quad bike - these vehicles are too top heavy.
Or as the US Consumer Product Safety Commission puts it: "The vehicles may exhibit inadequate lateral stability, undesirable steering characteristics, and inadequate occupant protection during a roll-over crash."
True, quad bikes are extremely popular, so whatever we do it will take a long time to turn the ship around.
This country embraced the quad bike with gusto more than 30 years ago. They're put to work on almost every farm and lifestyle block, but at a huge price.
According to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise, five New Zealanders die on quad bikes on farms every year and more than a quarter (28 per cent) of all farm accidents involve the vehicles. A further 845 people are injured on quad bikes with 160 of those suffering serious injuries requiring time off work.
In 2010, claims to ACC for people riding All Terrain Vehicles (mostly quad bikes), cost $10 million - although the cost is likely to be higher, as not all those injured lodge claims.
Despite a slight decline in injuries over the past two years, perhaps from increased helmet use, new quad bike crashes are constantly reported. And in an astonishing move, Landcorp recently discontinued their use on its dairy farms, citing safety concerns.
Quad bikes look easy to ride but they roll out of the bike shop with two strikes against them - a relatively high centre of gravity plus a relatively narrow wheel-base. When Farmer Brown adds his heavy load or spray tank to the carrier, or couples a trailer to the tow bar, things can turn really nasty.
Many users learn to ride quad bikes well enough. They stand up, sit down, transfer weight, and so forth. And, true again, not every trip to the hills to spray thistles results in disaster. Quad bikes can be made to do the job, but that doesn't prove much. Humans can make all kinds of unsuitable machines work when they put their minds to it. Teaching a monkey to ride a unicycle doesn't mean you've got a great bike, just a clever monkey.
How much better is it to develop a machine that doesn't require an acrobat - and a lucky one at that - to operate it? But look at the commercially-driven state of denial out there. Rather than admitting the basic concept is flawed, the big manufacturers keep persevering. Led by Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha and Kawasaki, the manufacturers add more powerful engines to bigger quad bikes year after year, which really does wonders for their stability.
Research and development into better vehicles should be part of the brief for these big multi-nationals, so why haven't they gone back to the drawing board? Could it be that through our complacency we've accepted the easy, cheap option of tarting up an old recreational vehicle design? Sure there's been some progress in safety. Who could deny rider training and wearing helmets is a great idea, as is the absolute need to keep children as far from adult quad bikes as possible? But none of these bandaid solutions, not fitting softer plastics to crush fewer limbs in the event of a spill, nor even fitting roll-over bars, really get to the root of the matter. Quad bike manufacturers are at least right about roll-over protection: fitting big bars to a quad bike would just interrupt a rider parting from his or her machine during a spill. They'd cause as much trouble as they prevent.
The answer is something entirely different and I believe it could be done here. At the beginning of the 1960s, in New Plymouth, that technical wizard Johnny Callender designed the world's first fully dedicated farm motorcycle.
Concurrently, in Christchurch, engineers working for John Cameron Lewis came up with the Gnat, a direct forerunner of the quad bike. The Gnat was such a sensation that Nasa ordered a high-spec version.
These New Zealand designs were picked up, improved upon and put into production by the Japanese.
And if Callender and Cameron Lewis could do it in their day, we should be able to do it in ours.
Engineers at Massey University are taking an advanced Formula 1 car to the marketplace, which proves the depth of engineering innovation we have in this country. But owning the patents to the next mechanical packhorse to be used worldwide would make Massey a lot richer. Perhaps an engineer out there could heed the example of the late John Britten, who built his sensational V 1000 racing motorcycle.
Maybe the breakthrough will come not from an engineer, but from an outdoor worker scribbling on his lunch bag.
One thing's for certain: The idea which ultimately replaces the deeply flawed quad bike concept will be a world beater.
What should be done about quad bike safety in New Zealand? Let us know your view below.