Quad bike crashes soaring in Waikato

'We are losing about five farmers a year'

HARRY PEARL AND ELTON SMALLMAN
Last updated 05:00 08/05/2013
Quad bikes and helmets
BEN CURRAN/Fairfax NZ

SAFETY FIRST: Robert Fitzgerald makes sure his 9-year-old son, Alex, wears a helmet on his quad bike. His father, Geoffrey Fitzgerald, has been in two near-fatal accidents involving quad bikes on a farm.

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The first one, in 2007, ruptured his spleen, nearly killing him. In November he was sent to the hospital again with five fractured ribs and a cracked sternum.

But there's no quad bike accident that can keep Robert Fitzgerald's 62-year-old father from farming.

Geoffrey Fitzgerald is already back to work on his Wharepuhunga farm, but not before the hospital staff took him to task after his November accident.

His reply? "Sometimes shit just happens."

The family's brush with death has not stopped them from riding quad bikes.

Robert Fitzgerald, 35, makes his 9-year-old son, Alex, wear a helmet on their 54-hectare dairy farm south of Te Awamutu.

"People say people should be more educated but we use them every day and sometimes accidents happen."

In the Waikato, accidents aren't just happening. They're soaring.

A report, recently published in the ANZ Journal of Surgery, showed a 42 per cent jump in Waikato Hospital admissions for quad-bike injuries between 2009 and 2010.

The study also identified 101 cases of quad-bike injuries or deaths from a database of 13,400 trauma patients between February 2007 and March 2011.

If the current trend continued in quad-bike injuries, researchers estimated a cost of $1.47 million in Waikato hospitals in 2012.

Dr Grant Christey, who was one of the authors of the report, said the results were "astounding" and he hoped they would be noted by Waikato's rural committee, which was at highest risk.

"It's time to engage in the debate as to why we're seeing this rate increase.

"We've highlighted the problem and ... we need to look at reasons why safety measures aren't being employed."

Results of the study showed the average age of someone injured in a quad bike-related accident was 38.8, they were more likely to be male (84 per cent of patients), and the injury severity score was significantly higher in Maori than New Zealand European.

It also noted patient admissions were costing the Waikato health system hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The average cost of treatment and rehabilitation per trauma patient was $19,497, and in 2010 quad-bike-related injuries cost Waikato Hospital $721,000.

"That's 750 bed days where an elected patient can't get a bed," Dr Christey said.

"The main thing is this is affecting our ability to do a lot of other work."

However, Dr Christey said the burden on society was often a lot worse.

"If someone comes out of the hospital with a permanent disability, that is going to be a lot more expensive for a patient and for society than a few hospital bed days."

According to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment there have been 29 work-related quad-bike deaths between 2006 and 2012, including six in Waikato.

Since January there has been a spate of accidents involving quad bikes in the Waikato.

The most recent fatality involved 44-year-old farmhand Gary Tantrum, who was shifting cows on steep ground at a dairy farm in McLean Rd, Mangakino in March, when his bike toppled over and pinned him.

Mr Tantrum, who with his partner had three young children, died at the scene.

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At the time, New Zealand's chief coroner Neil MacLean expressed frustration with the lack of concrete action taken to prevent deaths.

According to the report, Quad bike injuries in Waikato, New Zealand: an institutional review from 2007-2011, more than one-third of farm fatalities in New Zealand involve quad bikes.

Robert Fitzgerald said farmers were continually looked at as the cause.

"How many happen on lifestyle blocks and beaches?" he said.

"How much is directly related to proper agriculture as such?

"I don't really know what the answer is. It's kind like drink-driving really. How do you stop it?"

Waikato Federated Farmers president James Houghton said he was not surprised by the study's findings, but urged people to put it in context.

"We are losing about five farmers a year to quad-bike accidents - and that is a tragedy in itself - but in context to what happens in society, we don't want to overreact.

"We're losing about 35 to 40 people a year on the road."

He said people seemed to attribute all quad-bike accidents to farming accidents, but that was not the case.

Mr Houghton said it was very hard to change culture and mindset in the farming community, but a culture of safety needed to be reinforced.

"It's around the mindset. People are doing the training courses, but [still] die. The training courses are providing people with the right skills, but complacency is our worst enemy."

Despite head injuries accounting for 17 per cent of total injuries, helmet use is low, the report concludes.

Of the 101 cases of quad-bike-related injuries or deaths, helmet use was recorded for only 46 patients.

The report concluded there "an underlying resistance to helmet use with the choice to actively not wear a helmet a behavioural consideration".

However, Mr Houghton doubted helmet use would have prevented most deaths.

"At the moment, people are being fined for not wearing helmets. Helmets do prevent head injuries, but as a cause of death, would helmets have saved half of these people? No."

Mr Fitzgerald said he was not in favour of mandatory seatbelts, roll cages or helmets which he said could lead to more harm.

"A roll bar would've definitely harmed [my father] in one of the accidents. He didn't get a head injury at all."

Instead, Mr Fitzgerald said inexperienced operators need to learn the safe handling of farm machinery.

"We have backpackers stay on our farm and we do make them wear a helmet. I ride with them for a while as well to make sure they get used to it before I let them go."

At present, the use of quad bikes in a working capacity is regulated by health and safety guidelines. However, there is no guideline covering the use of quad bikes, including helmets, training, rider age, passengers and towing and carrying limits.

Mr Fitzgerald said there is no simple solution to the accident rate.

"You can only have so much red tape and so many rules," he said.

"It's the way we use them, I guess."

QUAD BIKE DEATHS

August 2010 - Suzanne Claudia Ferguson, 62, was killed after the trailer of haylage she was towing flipped near Awarua, about 20km south of Kaikohe.

September 2011 - Geoffrey Raymond Gill, aged 65, died after his farm bike rolled and trapped him at Merrivale, in western Southland.

October 2012 - Ten-year-old Shane White was killed on a Wairarapa farm when the quad bike he was driving flipped.

December 2012 - Rowan Cai Parker, 16, was killed after he lost control of the quad bike he was driving in south Otago and drove over a cliff, falling 150 metres onto rocks.

January 2013 - Rakaia farmer Hamish Baxter, 45, died after crashing his quad bike while heading out to check on irrigation on a Canterbury farm.

March 2013 - Mangakino farmhand Gary Tantrum, 44, died when his bike toppled over, pinning him.

WARNING ON QUAD SAFETY

There are no government guidelines covering the use of quad bikes, including helmets, training, rider age, passengers and towing and carrying limits.

However, the trauma committee of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons has taken a stance on the issue. The trade group is tasked with training and examining surgeons in Australia and New Zealand.

It advises:

■ Prohibit the sale of three-wheel ATVs.

■ Until a helmet specific to the use of quad bikes is approved, the use of AS/NZS 3838 (2006) helmets for horseriding and horse-related activities is suggested.

■ Restrict the use of quad bikes for children under 16.

■ Speed limit 55kmh.

■ Distribute and promote information on the dangers of quad bikes at point of sale.

■ Research and improve the design and development of bikes to allow for more rollover protection.

■ Require workers who operate quad bikes to demonstrate competency and safety measures.

- Waikato Times

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