At first glance, it seems extraordinary that a farming couple could be fined $40,000 for not wearing helmets while riding their quad bikes. The penalty, handed down this week in the Blenheim District Court, far exceeds anything that a townie would face if, say, they were caught not wearing a seatbelt while driving.
The size of the fine, however, reflects the frustratingly large number of accidents that continue to involve quad bikes. As much was re-emphasised when, on the same day as the Blenheim judgment, a cross-sector report highlighted the dangers inherent in children operating these and other off-road vehicles.
The Child and Youth Mortality Review Committee studied the death of 33 children aged up to 15 in accidents between 2002 and 2012 involving motorcycles, quad bikes and farm vehicles. Quad bikes were involved in 12 of these deaths, with a loss of control preceding the crashes in most cases. Children were simply not strong enough or skilful enough to control these machines. More broadly, five people, on average, are killed in quad bike accidents each year, and another 850 are injured. Clearly, these are vehicles that need to be handled with great care.
For years, coroners have called for an end to lax attitudes towards their use. Progress in rectifying this has been slow, however. Frustrated authorities have resorted increasingly to the Health and Safety in Employment Act. The Marlborough couple, who had been repeatedly warned by WorkSafe NZ, were not the first to feel the impact of this. Earlier this year, a farm worker was fined $15,000 for not wearing a helmet while riding a quad bike and, astoundingly, carrying a helmetless child as a passenger.
There is an element of the town-country divide in such episodes. Some people in rural areas are apt to scorn safety practices. But, as the review committee pointed out, a dismissive attitude also once characterised farmers' attitude towards children and tractors. In the 1980s, an average two children under 15 died every year while riding on a tractor. Between 2002 and 2012, only one child in this age group died that way, and none while operating a tractor. That is not a result of children no longer riding on or operating tractors. That remains relatively common. It reflects farmers' recognition of the danger and their embrace of accident prevention measures.
The strategy that sharply curtailed the tractor toll suggests an obvious way forward for those tasked with tackling quad-bike fatalities. The review committee, therefore, eschews heavy-handed controls in a favour of a multi-faceted approach that combines education, engineering, design and legislation. A key part of this would be a single agency, ACC, taking responsibility for child and youth injury prevention by facilitating cross-sector planning, implementation and evaluation of safety interventions.
The review committee also notes that a growing number of international authorities recommend that children under 16 should not operate quad bikes of any size. But it stops short of recommending this, suggesting, instead, that no child under 6 should be in control of such a vehicle. Parents are also advised to supervise children on quad bikes, ensure helmets are always worn, not allow passengers on them unless the bike is designed for this purpose, and not allow those under 16 to operate adult-sized quad bikes.
All this is eminently sensible. It should not need to be said. Clearly, adults must also set an example in safe practice. They, after all, are role models for their children. It is apparent, however, that some are loath to heed either education campaigns or guidelines for the use of quad bikes. In their case, heavy fines are an appropriate stick and an example to others.