Quad bike accidents have claimed 45 lives and caused more than 17,000 injuries in the last decade, among farm workers and recreational users. Amanda Cropp reports on the increasingly heated debate over how to improve our safety record.
FIFTEEN MONTHS after he pitched over the handle bars of his quad bike onto the hard- packed dirt of a farm paddock, Mark Hobbs can finally string 13 words together. It's a big improvement on six months ago when he could only manage five-word sentences, but he can still barely read and write.
After the accident in September 2009, doctors said Hobbs had a 5% chance of survival. He spent two months in hospital where surgeons picked bone fragments out of his brain and inserted a titanium plate to repair his shattered skull.
Last week he had surgery to rebuild his left eye socket, but double vision in that eye may be permanent. His right arm is weakened and his left arm sports a long curving scar from the accident.
The 38-year-old former dairy farm worker often forgets the names of family members, including his partner of 12 years, Sue Hardy, who says he gets very frustrated with the short-term memory loss caused by his head injury.
"He'll go to do something, get five steps through the house and he can't remember what he's going to do."
Hobbs still can't remember what caused his fall off the quad as he drove down a slope on the dairy runoff he managed in South Canterbury. He'd left his cellphone at home that day and, after dragging himself back to the machine, he lay on the ground lapsing in and out of consciousness until the farm owner found him about four hours later.
The annual ACC bill for quad bike-related injuries is around $7 million, and Hobbs' claim was among 2533 in 2009, a sizeable increase on the 457 new claims accepted in 2000.
Unlike countries such as the US where they are largely a recreational vehicle, most of the 70,000-90,000 quad bikes in New Zealand are used in the agricultural sector, and it's not unusual for a farmer to clock up 1000-plus hours a year in the saddle.
Accidents certainly occur in recreational settings. In April, 45-year-old Michelle Goodgame died when her quad bike rolled seven metres down a ravine as she ferried household supplies up a gravel track to a bach on D'Urville Island. Her seven-year-old daughter, riding on the back, was injured.
But the real problem is on farms where each year on average five people are killed in quad bike accidents and 850 are injured. Researchers estimate 35 farmers come off their quad bikes every day and nine of them are hurt badly enough to take time off work to recover.
It's a similar story in Australia where the Heads of Work Safe Authorities last year set up a Trans- Tasman Working Party on quad bike safety. Membership includes a wide range of interested groups including government agencies, distributors, manufacturers, farm safety groups, and two representatives from our Department of Labour which is responsible for investigating work-related quad bike accidents. A separate technical engineering group will report back to the working party in the new year on ways to improve safety.
In the meantime, the Department of Labour is promising to take a harder line on prosecutions if workers are hurt or killed and investigations show employers have breached the Health and Safety in Employment Act by not following quad bike safety guidelines.
Despite being inherently unstable because of their narrow wheel base and high centre of gravity, quad bikes are frequently referred to as all terrain vehicles or ATVs, giving the impression they can go anywhere and do anything.
Labour Department chief adviser of health and safety Dr Geraint Emrys says the department has deliberately stopped using the term ATV because quad bike use in circumstances where a tractor or a ute would have been more appropriate is a big factor in accidents.
Draft quad bike guidelines released last month recommend riders wear a helmet and are experienced or properly trained. They say children under 16 should not be permitted to ride adult quad bikes (over 90cc), and users should not carry passengers unless machines are designed to do so, or exceed maximum towing and carrying limits.
Penalties can be stiff: after the death of Jody Santos in 2008, a Masterton honey company was fined $78,000 and ordered to pay reparation of $60,000. Santos had been given basic instructions on how to ride a borrowed quad bike which was unwarranted, and he was not wearing a helmet when he crashed.
At the Santos inquest, coroner Ian Smith called for roll bars and lap belts on quad bikes, and for the wearing of helmets to be made compulsory.
On the face of it, he has a point. Quad bikes are responsible for almost a third of farm fatalities (40% with head injuries), and roll overs featured in more than half of all serious farm quad bike incidents investigated by the department.
SUE HARDY will never forget the sight of her partner's dirt- encrusted head, swollen to three times its normal size, and she is all for a law change to make the wearing of quad bike helmets compulsory.
When he's riding his dirt bike Hobbs wears all the safety gear - pants, helmet, boots, and hard vest - but in 10 years of farm work he never wore a helmet on a quad bike, even though his last employer supplied one.
On some farms, failure to wear a helmet is a sackable offence, but the head gear is still unpopular with many farmers who say it is impractical when they are constantly getting on and off bikes, attending to stock.
Quad bike salesman Steve Johnson had a stand at the recent Canterbury A&P show and although he is getting more inquiries about helmets, most farmers still refuse to wear one.
"Ninety percent of the time I get it thrown back in my face, they say, 'I'm not wearing that bloody thing.' It's a different story when it comes to recreational [quad] bikers, they will have body protection, gloves, goggles, helmets and boots. They have accidents far worse than farmers do but they have a lower injury rate. They're putting the machines way outside the manufacturers' recommendations and not having the same issues."
Farm Safe, which runs safety training courses, comes up against similar resistance.
National manager Grant Hadfield believes official accident statistics are the tip of the iceberg. He says farmers tend to have a blase attitude towards quad bikes and underestimate their accident potential. "You have to treat them as if they have the potential to kill you every time you get on them."
Despite Labour Department calls for more training, changes to education funding mean that one-off quad bike courses now cost up to $400 per person, and Hadfield worries that will deter farmers from sending employees along.
However, the real hot potato in the quad bike debate is the use of roll over protection devices (ROPs) which are fitted to about 15% of quad bikes on New Zealand farms.
ROPs sound sensible because anyone pinned under a 250kg-plus quad bike has a pretty high chance of dying, especially if they are working alone in an isolated location.
ROPs were introduced on tractors in the 1970s and appeared on quad bikes in the 1980s, but later fell out of favour. Quad bike manufacturers are strongly opposed to their use and refuse to accept warranty claims where damage is the result of an unapproved "after market" device.
They argue that lap belts are completely inappropriate on a machine where riders have to shift their weight around, in some cases standing up, to safely negotiate corners, or go up and down hills.
But without safety restraints, manufacturers say ROPs cause more injuries than they prevent, citing a computer simulation by American safety consultants Dynamic Research Inc (DRI) as evidence of this.
In its draft quad bike guidelines, the Labour Department acknowledges that DRI's findings have not been universally accepted. But the department says given that ROPs have not been approved by quad bike manufacturers and continuing debate about the level of protection, it cannot promote or require the fitting of ROPs to manage the hazard of quad bike roll-over.
"Fitting ROPs to a bike therefore remains a matter of personal choice for the farmer until the matter is resolved."
Emrys says that may change down the track with more research. "There's no standard we can look to and say it's absolutely clear and irrefutable you should have this protection device on your machine . . . There will be a solution coming around ROPs but it's just not here yet."
THE DEPARTMENT'S current stance is an enormous disappointment to Dave Robertson of QB Industries, a small Queensland engineering company manufacturing the Quadbar ROP.
"When it comes to an engineering design, which is the best way to deal with the situation, the manufacturers are so powerful, influential and intimidating that nothing ever happens."
Robertson says it's unrealistic to expect measures like helmets, age restrictions and rider training to prevent injuries, and having sat through a coroner's inquest where fatal crush injuries were described in detail, he says asphyxia via quad bike is an agonising death.
"The worst part about it is that, quite often in a workplace, it's workmates or safety crews that recover the body, but in a farming situation, it's the wife, husband, son or daughter, and that just devastates them."
Robertson has sold about 1000 Quadbars ($A500 each) since they went on the market a year ago. ACC has bought 10 for testing on farms, but efforts to sell through quad bike retailers here have been stymied by the attitude of manufacturers.
"The retailers have had it drummed into them about the opposition to protection . . . It's so entrenched that ROPs are dangerous that I didn't get anywhere." Last year the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) wrote to Robertson on behalf of the leading Australian distributors of quad bikes urging him to cease marketing of the Quadbar because it was unsafe.
The letter warned that if anyone was injured by a Quadbar and made a claim against a quad bike distributor or its parent company, they would in turn "seek indemnity" from Robertson in respect of the claim.
Greytown farmer Roger Barton is a member of the department's quad bike users' group providing feedback on safety issues. He has ridden a quad bike fitted with a Quadbar for about 15 months and reckons it's a great improvement on a previous ROP which tended to catch in low-hanging tree branches. He says the opposition to ROPs is ironic given the high percentage of quad bikes fitted with bull bars which are just as likely to be a safety hazard in a roll over. His take is that opposition to ROPs is fuelled by the manufacturers' fear of legal action in much larger markets, such as the US.
"Little Mr Honda in Auckland is very scared of Mr Honda in Japan or the US because of the litigation and legal stuff that happens in those countries . . . If [dealers] alienate their suppliers and sell something that's outside their franchise, that's [their] meal ticket chopped off."
This is roundly rejected by Bill Grice, CEO of Suzuki New Zealand, who was until recently the chair of the Motor Industry Association's motorcycle group.
Grice says he knows of one or two instances overseas where ROPs have caused spinal injuries to quad bike riders but could not provide details of any New Zealand cases.
He concedes that roll over is a known risk - "All of us who have ridden them a bit have rolled one at some stage, sadly" - but that risk can be minimised by using the machines as they were intended.
"We've got to take the focus off the design of the machines and put it on riding habits and a better attitude towards them. I think the design is perfect if it's used within the design parameters of all the brands, and they're very similar. The problem is where they are used outside of that because they're very versatile and may not be the right machine for the job."
However, Australian road safety engineer and agricultural safety consultant John Lambert, a strong advocate of ROPs and highly critical of the DRI computer simulation, is convinced a thorough rethink of quad bikes is needed.
He says redesigning the cargo racks would prevent them being used to carry passengers and changing the seat design and handlebar grips would make it much harder for under 16-year- olds to ride quad bikes (between 2000 and 2006, quad bike accidents killed 16 youngsters in this age group, hospitalised 218 and permanently disabled six).
SUCH STATISTICS are anathema to Dr Yossi Berge, national health and safety co-ordinator to the Australian Workers' Union, who recently resigned from the trans-Tasman quad bike working party in disgust.
He says one-third of the 30 members are associated with the quad bike industry, and the working party is unlikely to make one iota of difference because of a tendency to blame the user.
He says that on average, 11 Australians a year die on quad bikes, which is higher than the death toll for the entire Australian mining industry.
New Zealand ergonomist and quad bike safety expert Dave Moore is on the working party's engineering sub group and he says improving safety is difficult because many factors contribute to the accident rate.
The fact that quad bikes on farms don't need a warrant of fitness is an issue because once the three-year manufacturer's warranty expires, maintenance tends to drop off. "So you're more likely to be on a machine that's a bit unpredictable . . . that difference in performance may be critical."
Moore says the impact of other accessories used with quad bikes, such as trailers and spray units, should also be coming under scrutiny.
Discussion about engineering modifications (such as ROPs) has been going on worldwide for years and Moore admits coming up with answers acceptable to manufacturers, users and safety agencies won't be easy.
"The task of unpicking these arguments and putting it solidly in an Australasian setting, rather than a European or North American one, is not something that is going to happen fast. But there's a sense of urgency within the working party because everybody is aware of the extent of the problem and the annual burden in terms of grief and cost for families."
Sue Hardy knows all about that. As well as holding down a part-time supermarket job, she spends hours ferrying Hobbs to therapy sessions and helping him with rehab exercises.
Realistically she knows it may be some time before he can work again and she talked to a local Young Farmers Club in a bid to raise awareness about the impact of quad bike injuries. "I think they were a bit shocked when I showed them the photos of Mark after the accident and they were pretty quiet. I just hope it makes a difference."
OTHER SAFETY OPTIONS
The Safe T Lok
Garth Taylor was forced to leave farming after suffering severe neck injuries in a quad bike accident, and invented the Safe T Lok throttle lock after a second accident where he flipped his bike as a result of knocking the throttle with his thigh. The device costs $140 and can be fitted to Honda machines (a Suzuki version is on the way). Taylor has also come up with a safety reversing buzzer because he says riders often forget they've left their bikes in reverse gear, hop on, apply the throttle expecting to go forward and crash. Some farmers disconnect noisy reverse beepers but Taylor says his buzzer provides sufficient warning without being irritatingly loud.
Whanganui-based company Pacific Helmets has sold 8000 to 10,000 adjustable quad bike helmets designed for farm use. Sales manager Rick Hodge says recreational quad bike riders should be using full face motorcycle helmets - something he wishes he'd worn 14 years ago (well before he worked for Pacific Helmets) when he flipped his quad bike on a sand dune. "The brake lever cut down the side of my jaw and face, and peeled it back like a piece of paper. I still have the scars."
Next year the company is launching a new multipurpose helmet suitable for both quad bikes and two-wheel farm bikes (retail price $140). It will also have the option of ear muffs and a mesh screen so farmers can use it with a chainsaw.
AT A GLANCE
$7 million - Annual ACC bill for quad bike-related injuries
2533 - Number of new ACC claims accepted in 2009
457 - Number of new ACC claims accepted in 2000
70,000-90,000 - Number of quad bikes in NZ
35 - Estimate of farm workers who come off their quad bikes each day in NZ
15 - Percentage of quad bikes with rollover protection devices on NZ farms
Source: ACC; Department of Labour; Motor Industry Association
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