Paralympics veteran Peter Martin remembers everything about his quad bike accident until the moment he hit his head.
He was 27, working as a noxious plant officer conducting weed research on a farm and was hauling a weed wiper behind a quad bike.
The rolling pin type apparatus was being used to put chemicals on to tall weeds.
"The weed wiper caught the lip of a sheep track and the front of the bike lifted up," he says. Before he knew it the bike was "racing back at a wee rate of knots" and though Martin stood up and shifted his weight forward to try and bring down the front, the bike and weed wiper jack-knifed and then flipped.
"I somersaulted at the same time and as far as I know my head hit the ground. It happened pretty quick," he says. A split second and his life had changed forever.
Martin was an experienced motorbike rider and says he was used to riding on hills.
"On a two-wheeler I would have jumped off quickly, but the weight of the machine just forced it backwards and I thought I could save the situation." He couldn't.
Out-of-control situations on quad bikes over Christmas and New Year in New Zealand left two people dead and several injured, including a 6-year-old girl, who was a passenger on an overloaded bike.
The timing, the drama, the uniqueness of the vehicle all contributed to intense media coverage that renewed debate over increasing safety for quad bike riders.
Coroners investigating quad bike deaths have repeatedly called for stronger compulsory safety measures. They are frustrated that nothing seems to change.
In the last few years, several coroners have recommended measures such as advice to riders to wear helmets and not to let children under 16 use them. No new laws have been passed to enforce them.
Over the past three years, ACC has paid out $29 million in claims involving quad bikes and other all- terrain vehicles (this includes motorbikes with three or four wheels).
There have been 11,084 claims for injuries and 26 accidental death claims for deaths involving quad bikes and other ATVs since 2008.
That includes 1465 children and of them 260 were aged 4 or under.
In the last three years (2010-2012), most work and non- work accidents happened in Auckland, where 360 claims were lodged.
This was followed by the Far North with 308, Christchurch city with 255, Waikato with 239 and Hastings with 185. In South Canterbury, the Timaru District had the highest number of claims for the period, with 77. Waimate had 30 and Mackenzie 23.
New Zealanders are among the highest users of quad bikes in the world. We were one of the first countries in the world to start using the bikes, which started out as recreational vehicles, on farms and, according to The Press motoring editor Dave Moore, "because of the high mileage we log up on bikes, companies often use us as a development source for new or improved bikes."
There are more than 100,000 ATVs in use in New Zealand, mostly as farm utility vehicles but also increasingly as sport vehicles.
With the death toll from quad bikes in 2012 at seven as well as the holiday season accidents, the new year saw vigorous calls for greater safety around the vehicles.
But Federated Farmers Southland provincial president Russell MacPherson was quick to plead for a more rational debate.
"Given there are as many quads as there are motorcycles, 45 people were killed last year in motorcycle accidents and more than 1000 were injured.
"If we are to regulate quad bikes you must ask why and what for, when the death toll in a heavily regulated and policed environment outstrips on-farm deaths for quads."
He says more pedestrians (33) and cyclists (8) were killed last year than on quad bikes and 93 people drowned.
"Look at the blink-and-miss-it coverage we now give to drowning deaths," he says.
Although ACC, Federated Farmers and the then Labour Department outlined industry guidelines for quad bike use that included age restrictions, and advised the use of protective clothing and helmets nine years ago, there are no specific laws covering helmets, training, rider age, passengers and towing/ carrying limits on quad bikes.
Not that any of that would have made a difference for Peter Martin.
Martin believes that as he turned his head to look at what was happening behind him on the hill his weight shifted which steered the bike into the jack knife.
American motocross riders use the term "body-English" when they talk about shifting weight to change direction. David Vuillemin, a US and European supercross champion, nicknamed Le Cobra, famously credits a neat forward hip thrust to land his double jumps milliseconds ahead of his rivals.
It's that shifting weight that is key to riding a quad bike safely. "You need to be able to move your weight around the bike," says Thrillseekers Adventures general manager Neil Duncan.
The adventure tourism company guides more than 180 people a month through the rutted sandy and rocky riverbeds and hills around Hanmer Springs with a perfect safety record to date.
But it's the over-confident motorbike riders that are always the worry.
"The biggest mistakes people make are leaning into a corner and taking their feet off the foot pegs," Duncan says.
Thrillseekers quad bike guide Shane Hawkins, who rode his first bike aged 7, tells novice riders they should keep it simple. When it comes to quad bikes "you ride it more like a horse," he says.
"The way you ride, the way you sit and your posture, think horses. Quad bikes are totally different from two-wheel bikes."
It's horses for courses in more ways than one. Sport quad bikes and farm bikes are totally different animals, says Canterbury ATV Club president Ian Ffitch.
"My daughter, who is 5, rides a 50cc quite safely. But if we were talking a farm quad, she wouldn't even get on it. My 10-year-old rides a 250cc sport quad but a 250cc utility or farm quad is heavier than the 450cc sport bike that I race.
"Bikes are fun to slide in gravel but once you're off a slippery surface on to something with more traction, that's when the bikes will want to flip," he says.
Ffitch, who has spent 25 years as club president, says there are some changes that could be made and these echo what industry representatives in both the farming and sport and recreational sectors say.
"It should be compulsory on public land to wear helmets and there should be restrictions of ages based on the type of machinery."
However, Ffitch is careful to say he's not advocating for a blanket age/weight restriction, like the current proposal being touted that no under 16s be allowed on bikes bigger than 90cc.
"There are hundreds if not thousands of youngsters around the country who ride bikes competitively and quite safely. If that regulation came into effect, you've not only stolen the dreams of young, aspiring bike racers but you'll also be flooding the market with bikes no-one will want to buy."
There are also conversations around lap belts, roll bars and helmets but each is equally dangerous whether bikes have them or don't have them, depending on the situation.
"If you're wearing a helmet on a farm you have no side vision, or you can't hear if an animal charges you," says Martin.
Ffitch is against roll bars because that means you have to be strapped in with a harness or lap belt - "if you do roll and you aren't tied in and you fall out, you're likely to be cut in half as the machine rolls over you," he says.
And, he adds, you can just imagine what a farmer would say if they were wearing a lap belt and they faced seven gates in a 20-minute stretch of farm road.
He says he would like to see more education around bikes, including warning stickers that clearly state how many people can ride the vehicle and what loads they can take.
But he says nothing can be done to legislate for stupidity, especially if people have been drinking.
It doesn't matter how good the vehicle is, "we all know what alcohol does to people's judgment", says Ffitch.
"It's like people go on holiday and think normal rules don't apply. It all comes down, at the end of the day, to the user and how much respect they show for the machine."
Martin had the respect but as with all accidents sometimes you can't predict the scenario.
Martin's new set of wheels might not go as fast as the ones that cost him the use of his legs. But they're not holding him back and they've taken him further than he would ever have thought possible when he was lying broken in that Waikato field.
He was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to paralympic sport in the 2005 New Year's Honours list and competed for New Zealand in the Paralympics, winning gold, silver and bronze medals in Atlanta (1996), Sydney (2000) and Athens in 2004 and competing in London last year.
He hopes that as coach for New Zealand's wheelchair rugby team, the Wheelblacks, he'll be heading for Rio in 2014. He agrees that education is crucial, especially educating for the circumstances. "My instinct was to try and save the situation but, maybe if I had just leapt off I'm sure I would still have my neck. Who knows?"
The Department of Labour has links to training opportunities, safety guidelines and operating procedures at dol.govt.nz/quad-bikes.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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