Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Farmers' risky little helper

The second death this month of a quad bike rider brings the 2012 toll to five and raises issues of bike design and user responsibility, reports Phil Taylor

Quad bikes can be handy vehicles, and they can be fun, but they can also be deadly. Photo / Getty Images (Posed photo)
Quad bikes can be handy vehicles, and they can be fun, but they can also be deadly. Photo / Getty Images (Posed photo)

If you wish to experience something rare, take the road less travelled. To appreciate the lie of the land, you must take the high road.

That could be the motto of Riverland Adventures, the operator of quad bike tours in the rugged landscape south of Port Waikato.

"You can't see the land from the flat," company owner Percy Kukutai said when the Weekend Herald visited on Thursday.

The brochure reads: "At Riverland Adventures we pride ourselves on providing a culturally authentic, fun and safe quad biking experience."

Whether it was the open air, the adventure, the culture or all of these, of all the tourism choices within a 50-minute train trip of Auckland this was the one that most appealed to Chelsey Callaghan, 38. As the only Australian in the group, she received a special Maori welcome from Kukutai.

Kukutai was a market gardener before setting up his tourism business about four years ago.

He is a natural. His family have been on this sharply contoured land 300 years and he is a guardian of its oral history. He and a friend have walked these hills from Port Waikato to Raglan, plotting their route from pa site to pa site.

The group that set off on October 11 wore helmets and had 20 minutes pf tuition on how to ride the bikes. There were eight people, with the five adults driving a quad bike each. Three, including Kukutai, who led, carried a child on their machine.

The tour was on public roads, much of it on the predominantly gravel Klondyke Rd, which swoops and weaves through hills of forest, bush and pasture. The views are spectacular.

The accident occurred near the end of the trip - 2.6km from where Klondyke Rd exits on to Tuakau Bridge-Port Waikato Rd, the main thoroughfare in the area. Because of its remoteness it was two hours before Callaghan, who had suffered a head injury that was to prove fatal, arrived at hospital via vehicle and then helicopter.

No one saw Callaghan crash. The woman behind got the impression she had been flung from the quad bike but that it had not rolled on her. It has been speculated that she may have been distracted by the view.

The road is narrow and steep, requiring a low speed, but is well-made, hard-packed and, on that fine day, was dry. One of the party said the safety briefing and tuition on operating the bike were "completely adequate". But she now wondered whether the safari was something that the average person should be doing.

Riverland Adventures had guided more than 1000 people on quad bike safaris, Kukutai said. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment - Labour (MBIE Labour, formerly the Department of Labour) confirmed it had no record of any other serious accident involving the company.

Kukutai said it was not the right time for him to comment on quad bike safety. He had been in touch with Callaghan's family and friends in Australia. "We have had our poroporoaki (farewell) for Chelsey," he said.

Constable Amy Weston of the Serious Crash Unit said inquiries were continuing and would include a mechanical check of the quad bike. The file would go to the coroner and, if evidence of negligence was found, to a prosecutor.

The ministry has the power to order Riverland to stop quad bike tours. It is awaiting information sought from the company as part of its investigation before it decides on its next step.

Callaghan's death came days after 10-year-old Shane White died after he was trapped under a quad bike in Wairarapa. Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean described the death as a wake-up call. Those two deaths bring the number of quad bike fatalities this year to five, which is the annual average. White is the only child among them.

Coroner Brandt Shortland has been assigned to hold inquests into recent quad bike deaths to seek common themes and make recommendations.

"The deaths are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of quad bike accidents," Judge Maclean said. ACC estimates there are 35 quad bike accidents on farms each day. Four years ago, British backpacker Sarah Bond died on an adventure tourism excursion, when the bike she was riding plunged 50 metres down a steep bank near Te Anga, 30km west of Waikato's Waitomo Caves

A debate is raging in Australia about whether roll bars should be required on quad bikes, following the deaths of 13 people this year. The change is supported by unions but not by manufacturers or distributors, who claim it would make the machines more dangerous because of the risk of injury from the roll bar or cage. That mirrors the situation here.

Perry Kerr, chief executive of the Motor Industry Association, said it did not condone roll bars. "In fact we believe in certain circumstances they will injure the occupant because basically you will hit your head on the bar and take your head off."

Kerr pointed to an absence of lawsuits in the United States - the biggest market for quad bikes - as an indication that there is no serious design flaw.

"They are designed to be ridden standing in the crouched position with no impediment and so they are certainly not suitable for seatbelts."

The rider needed to be free to adjust body position forward and back for ascents and descents and from side to side when cornering.

The industry cites a computer simulation study commissioned by quad bike manufacturers which indicate roll bars do more harm than good. However, the study is not accepted by all.

A report by the Australian Centre for Agriculture Health & Safety last year concluded there was a need to improve design "to ensure the protection of the operator in the case of the machine rolling". The report said half the quad bike deaths in Australia in 2010 involved the bike rolling on the rider.

What is missing is a design change that clearly improves safety without changing the nature and performance of the quad bike.

There are examples of roll bars both saving the rider from serious injury and causing such injuries. Andrew Simpson, a training manager with driver instruction company CARNZ Training, said more research and trials were necessary.

Simpson, who teaches quad bike skills, said he had spoken to those who believed a roll bar had saved their life and to those who blamed it for breaking their back.

He said manufacturers would fit roll bars if the benefit was obvious. "Surely, as we are riding we should be thinking about how to avoid getting into dangerous situations."

Until trials of new technology are concluded, Federated Farmers is urging users to ensure they use quad bikes responsibly. It is the same approach being taken by the ministry, which is pushing to reduce quad bike deaths and injuries through a safety awareness campaign, spot checks on farms with penalties including stopping the use of quad bikes until safety issues are addressed and prosecution in serious accidents where safety measures were flouted.

Its key safety guidelines are that riders wear a helmet and are experienced or properly trained. The ministry says that children under 16 should not be permitted to ride adult quad bikes (90cc-750cc), users not allowed to carry passengers unless the bike is specifically designed to do so, and that the bikes be used for purpose.

Despite being inherently unstable because of their narrow wheelbase and high centre of gravity, the industry refers to them as ATVs All Terrain Vehicles. The ministry does not like the term ATV, saying it gives the impression the bikes can go anywhere and do anything, resulting in accidents because a quad bike was used in a situation where a tractor or a ute was more appropriate.

Kerr believes there has been a significant improvement in quad bike use on farms where on average 850 people are injured a year. Of the five deaths this year only two were on farms, he said. He estimates 80,000 quad bikes are used on farms with most ridden at least half of the working day.

"Tragic though they are," said Kerr, "the overall rate of death and injury is relatively low and probably lower than when they were all riding horses.

"They are machinery, they are not toys. Used correctly, hopefully there will be no serious injury resulting."

Quad bikes carry warnings about proper use. Comply and you should be safe is the message and the implication is that the industry sees user fault rather than design as the problem.

But Dog and Lemon Guide editor Clive Matthew-Wilson said a leap in safety would come only with a breakthrough in design.

"History shows that education campaigns don't work well," he said. "And it is particularly hard to get farm workers, who tend to have a fairly macho culture, to drive quad bikes in a way where they are less likely to flip."

A technological solution might involve a roll cage with a net and or an automatic restraint device that held the occupant within the cage but allowed the movement required to drive them effectively and also retained the ease of hopping on and off.

"You have got to assume people are going to make mistakes and design to limit the consequences."

Quad data

• 850 people injured on farms each year riding quad bikes

• 28 per cent of all work-related farm deaths involve quads

• $7 million paid by ACC each year for quad bike-related injuries

• 2533 claims made to ACC in 2009 related to quads

- NZ Herald

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