Have you heard the recent radio advertisement highlighting how dangerous ATVs can be? The grim message highlights how ATVs (also known as quad bikes) cause serious and catastrophic spinal injuries when they overturn because the operator has no head protection.
In the radio ad, Dr Keith Synnot, Orthopaedic Consultant at the National Spinal Injuries Unit in the Mater Hospital in Dublin, outlines the many long-lasting effects that a person who suffers a spinal injury can typically expect to encounter. These include permanent paralysis, not being able to pass urine, and developing pressure sores from being bed bound.
These vehicles are inherently unstable in their design because they are light, yet have a high centre of gravity.
Roll-over protection bars are not provided with quad bikes because traditional roll-bar design depends on the operator wearing a seatbelt for effectiveness. In the absence of a seatbelt, there is a risk of the thrown operator being struck by the bars in the event of a roll-over.
Anyone who was at the National Ploughing Championships in September will have seen the demonstration on ATV safety that the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) of Ireland organised on their stand. I stopped by to watch one of the demos, which was clearly focusing on how unstable ATVs can become once they travel on uneven ground or up a hill.
The demonstration drew a good crowd and I watched farmers' faces as they looked on. They seemed to be absorbing the main messages; always wear a helmet, always get operator training and never let kids operate an ATV. Unfortunately, though, a look at the numbers of farmers who have been maimed or killed whilst using ATVs over the last decade proves that no matter how many demonstrations are held, behaviour is not changing.
Over the 10-year period (2009-2018), 11 Irish farmers have been killed in ATV/quad bike accidents. That's not accounting for those who were left with horrific neurological injuries like the ones outlined above.
In short, something has to change. By their own admission, the HSA's advisory approach on ATVs has not resulted in any reduction in the number of accidents or fatalities. With this in mind, an amendment to the current safety law is being sought with a view to making it a legal requirement for ATV operators to undertake operator safety skills training and wear appropriate head protection at all times to help prevent fatal and serious injury.
While there will be costs involved to the farmer (it is thought that a one-day training course will be €250 and the cost of a helmet is around €50), the HSA argues that the overall benefit will be huge in terms of a reduction in deaths and serious injuries. Costs to the State in dealing with the aftermath and consequences of fatal and serious injury from ATV use will also reduce.
This sets the scene as to why there is now a four-week public consultation process on the HSA's website where submissions are being invited on the proposed law change. Key industry stakeholders are being invited to make submissions and consult on the process, including the Department of Agriculture, IFA, ICMSA, ICSA, Macra na Feirme, FBD, FRS, ACA, Teagasc, Coillte, and other member organisations of the Farm Safety Partnership Advisory Committee.
The deadline is the end of this month and more information can be seen on the HSA website at https://consultation.hsa.ie/Public-Consultations/2019-ATV/.
In my opinion, there is simply no rational argument against these plans to change the law for the better. For too long we have listened while the latest victim or family talks about their loss or lonely empty chair at the kitchen table. If a quad bike accident doesn't kill you, it will, at a minimum, end your farming career with a catastrophic injury.
Change will not come easily however, no matter how much sense it makes. There will be opposition from certain circles, but the facts are there for all to see. While the cost of training and the provision of helmets will ultimately be borne by farmers, the IFA and other farmer lobby groups need to use their full weight now as part of the consultation process to ensure these costs are minimised.
Tax incentives and the inclusion of the necessary training courses and appropriate headgear under schemes such as TAMS 11 should be secured to maximise compliance.
ATVs are used predominately in the farming sector, but also in the forestry, horticulture and inland fisheries sectors. It is thought that there are currently around 10,000 ATVs/quad bikes in use around Ireland.
It is well known that the agriculture sector is currently the most dangerous place of work within the Irish economy; the sector represents approximately 6pc of the national workforce, but regularly experiences up to 50pc of national annual workplace fatalities.
Over the 10-year period (2009-2018), tractors, ATVs and other vehicles were responsible for 30pc of the total workplace fatalities in the agriculture sector. And there has been a significant increase in ATV fatalities in recent years.
Irish farmers are typically self-employed, with a small workforce typically largely dependent on family labour, including young and elderly family members who double up as farm hands.
Of course, having a strong presence in the agriculture sector is a big attraction for manufacturers of these ATVs. The quad bike's popularity as a farm vehicle has to be acknowledged and, according to farmers, is largely due to its ease-of-use and low running costs when compared with other transport options.
Significantly, farmers experiencing mobility issues tend to purchase these units to increase their mobility on their farms. The difficulty here, though, is that to operate an ATV safely, one must be capable of moving bodyweight to maintain stability and prevent overturning. This technique, particularly necessary on sloping land, known as 'active riding', requires a high degree of flexibility and dexterity often lacking in elderly farmers. Of note is that eight (72pc) of ATV fatalities in the last 10 years have involved persons over 65 years old.
Non-fatal accidents are not well reported. The underlying causes are usually a combination of lack of structured training and/or experience; not wearing a helmet; excessive speed; carrying a passenger or an unbalanced load; tipping over on a bank, ditch, rut or bump; towing excessive loads with un-braked equipment.
Training is a matter of life and death. ATVs should only be ridden by users over the age of 16 who have received appropriate training in their safe use. Don't buy ATVs as Christmas gifts and never give into pressure from children to operate ATVs; teach them to respect the countless deaths and injuries ATVs have caused on Irish farms.
3. Protective clothing
More than half of all ATV riders have been thrown off at some time. There is no roll bar, so head protection is vital if you are to have any chance. At present, a motorcycle helmet is recommended.
Never carry a passenger on an ATV. The long seat design is for operators to shift their body weight backwards and forwards for different slope conditions, not for carrying passengers. You should not carry a passenger in a trailer behind an ATV, as any movement will make the machine unstable.
Off-road riding is hard on an ATV, so it is essential to carry out maintenance according to the manufacturer's recommendations. Tyre pressures and brakes should be checked regularly.
6. Safe driving methods
When cornering, weight should be transferred to the inside of the turn. When riding across a slope, keep your weight on the uphill side of the ATV. When going downhill, slide your weight backwards and reduce speed. When going uphill, move your weight forwards to reduce risk of overturning. This is known as 'active riding' and means the rider ought to be in good physical health to perform these actions.
7. Route planning
Over rough terrain, get to know your own ground and stick to planned routes where possible. Walk new routes if necessary to check for hidden obstructions.
8. Slow down
A large amount of accidents occur when the quad bike operator is travelling at speed. The two most common mechanisms of fatality over the last 10 years have been users getting trapped under the ATV or else impacting against another object.
According to Pat Griffin, Senior Inspector with the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) of Ireland, the objective of this amendment is to provide a statutory basis for the requirement for ATV operators to have undergone operator safety-skills training and to wear appropriate head protection at all times when operating an ATV to help prevent fatal and serious injury arising from their use.
Either the amendment will be passed and things will change or it will fail and the same trend of fatalities and catastrophic injuries will continue.
"We believe mandatory training will ensure that persons operating an ATV understand and can practise the key skills necessary to ensure the stability and control of the unit, ensuring their safety and the safety of others whom may be affected," said Mr Griffin.
"Critical to the safe operation of the ATV is maintaining control of the unit and particularly maintaining the centre of gravity through the centre of the ATV. This is achieved by the operator moving bodyweight into the turn or against the slope, depending on the terrain involved.
"The second objective of this amendment is to make the wearing of a protective helmet mandatory while operating an ATV. The loss of control of the ATV or overturning of the unit generally results in the operator being thrown at force from the ATV, placing the operator at risk of a severe head injury."
The Health and Safety Authority believe the benefits from mandatory training will include a reduction in fatal and serious injury arising from the operation of ATVs, with the consequential reduction in costs to the State associated with emergency response, hospital and possible long term care.
They argue that benefits directly to the farmer or operator would include greatly reduced risk of death or serious injury, reduced risk of overturns and damage to ATVs, more efficient use of the ATV, improved knowledge on general vehicle safety and better machine maintenance skills. Furthermore, the extent of head injury to persons who do lose control, in most cases, should be greatly reduced due to the wearing of appropriate head protection.