The Government must be well aware of the dangers posed by quad bikes. More than 100 people have died riding them in the past decade and about 850 are injured each year, mostly on farms. But the Government knows equally well that this is an issue where there is a divide in attitudes between town and country. Safety practices that are regarded as standard in cities are sometimes scorned in rural areas. Therefore, Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson is treading cautiously. Her answer to the problem is an education programme which began in November and encourages farmers to, among other things, wear safety helmets and keep children off adult quad bikes.

Some such campaigns have tackled aspects of public health and safety effectively, and it is to be hoped this one works. But Otago University research has indicated the issue is even more serious than previously supposed. It found that, on average, riders lost control of quad bikes on 12,645 occasions a year, resulting in 1400 injuries, not all of which were reported. That does not bode well for the Government's campaign. It suggests that previous efforts along this line, of which there have been several, have not hit the mark.

As far back as 2002, a programme funded by ACC and supported by the police was taken into rural schools. A year later, ACC, in partnership with Federated Farmers and the Labour Department, released industry guidelines for the use of quad bikes. These suggested that no one under 15 should be allowed to ride them and that helmets should be worn. The Government has sought to add teeth to the present campaign by saying that farmers who do not follow the recommended safety steps could risk penalties under the Health and Safety in Employment Act if someone working on their farm is seriously injured or killed.

Again, however, the precedent is not encouraging. Five years ago, a South Taranaki farmer was acquitted by a jury of far more serious charges - manslaughter and criminal nuisance - after his daughter was killed riding his quad bike. This may have cemented a feeling of immunity in rural communities. Guidelines that do not impose a legal requirement, and the failure so far to bring health and safety legislation to bear will have done nothing to disturb their equanimity.

The situation has annoyed a number of coroners. One in particular, Wellington's vastly experienced Ian Smith, has described himself as being "at his wits' end" over attitudes to quad bike safety. In July, after the death of a beekeeper, he called for minimum requirements, including full or partial roll bars, lap belts, and the compulsory use of helmets. "For goodness sake, why can we not get these three simple, lifesaving things on a quad bike?" he asked.

Mr Smith's case has undoubtedly been strengthened by the ongoing toll. In November a teenage girl was killed after being pinned under an overturned quad bike on a hilly West Coast farm. This week a farmer died when his bike rolled down a steep bank on a Hawkes Bay station. In at least some instances of such crashes, the safety measures suggested by Mr Smith would surely have saved lives.

Responsible farmers already follow the industry guidelines. It is time for all to recognise the sense in the Government's campaign. Given the dangers posed by powerful modern machinery, a lax approach to safety is simply asking for trouble. That much is accepted in cities. Farms should be no different. If yet another education campaign fails to vastly improve attitudes and practice, the Government will have no option but to impose mandatory rules for safety.