From time to time, there is an eruption of concern about the dangers posed by quad bikes. Coroners have declared themselves at their wits' end over lax attitudes towards their use, and governments have responded with education campaigns and guidelines for their use. Still, however, the deaths associated with them continue to mount.
Seven people died last year, a figure that highlights the slow progress in reducing the danger. Now, the new year has brought a particularly bad accident, with 6-year-old Ashlee Petrowski suffering serious head injuries after the quad bike on which she was riding with four adults crashed down a Hawkes Bay ditch.
This incident was somewhat unusual in that it occurred on a public road. Most accidents happen on farms or on land used by tourism operators. But a common denominator is often negligence, which in the Hawkes Bay accident saw the overloading of a quad bike by adults, most of whom were allegedly drunk . This attitude has proven difficult to remedy. Much of the reason for this reflects a divide between town and country, with those in rural areas having a dismissive air to safety practices that are regarded as standard in urban centres.
It is, of course, hard to police the reckless use of quad bikes on rural properties. Undoubtedly, many accidents are never reported. Equally, farmers have had some encouragement to regard themselves as being immune from city standards. One notable legal verdict in 2006 saw a Taranaki farmer acquitted by a jury of manslaughter and criminal-nuisance charges after his daughter was killed riding his quad bike.
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To counter that sentiment, there have been numerous education programmes, including visits to rural schools. Additionally, nine years ago, the ACC, in partnership with Federated Farmers and the then Labour Department, released industry guidelines for the use of quad bikes. These advised that helmets and protective clothing should be worn and that no one under 15 should be allowed to ride them.
Responsible farmers and tourism operators are following these guidelines. But the ongoing toll of needless accidents and deaths indicates they are too often being disregarded. In some quarters, quad bikes are seen as relatively harmless pieces of light machinery. Many are far from that, and it is difficult to see how a young child can operate the heavier versions, in particular, with the required degree of safety.
The industry guidelines are not, of course, a legal requirement. That, in itself, may be reinforcing a cavalier attitude. Coroners, in voicing their safety concerns, have suggested the likes of full or partial roll bars and laps belts, as well as making the guidelines a matter of legal compulsion. The practicality and impact of roll bars have been disputed by farmers. They may have a point, but the circumstances of the Hawkes Bay accident reinforce the case for the compulsory use of safety helmets and preventing those under 15 from riding them.
Ashlee Petrowski's plight should prompt the Government to investigate whether the industry guidelines should become mandatory. Such an intrusive step should not be taken lightly. Quad bikes are a vital tool on farms. But accidents will continue as long as there is a lax attitude towards safety. Last year's toll indicates that education programmes have not been a total success in altering attitudes and dangerous practices.
Recklessness remains a concern. So, too, does the impact of stress and fatigue from working long hours, which the police have identified as a cause of some quad-bike crashes. Whatever the reason, there seems, increasingly, to be little reason for rural areas to be exempt from urban safety standards.