Croakey contributors have been calling for regulatory action on quad bikes for some years (see the list of stories at the bottom of this post), and the issue is again in the spotlight with inquests in NSW and Queensland.
Meanwhile, Ann Arnold, who recently investigated the safety of quad bikes for ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing program, describes below the traumatic impact of related injuries upon one young boy and his family.
Ann Arnold writes:
As a station officer with Queensland Fire and Emergency Services, Mario Cocco is used to attending other people’s accidents.
On the day of the NRL grand final last year, it was his wife Jodie who called 000.
The family from Atherton, on the Tablelands up the range from Cairns, were visiting friends just outside town, to watch the footy. The kids decided to ride the quad bike – a child’s 50cc bike.
Dominic Cocco, aged 7, hadn’t ridden one by himself before, but Jodie thought with the braking similar to his BMX bike, he’d manage it.
He didn’t. The quad bike took off, out of control, and hit a telephone pole. Jodie picked Dominic up off the road.
‘Dominic suffered a severe brain injury. He had a bleed to the right side of his frontal lobe. And fractured his skull from the back right through to almost his nose.’
Amazingly, after being put into an induced coma and helicoptered to Townsville Hospital, where he stayed for six weeks, Dominic is back at school. Jodie says he’s ‘struggling a bit with his learning, but we’ve got an amazing team helping him’.
This was one of the unknown number of quad bike injuries that occur each year. The University of NSW TARS – Transport and Road Safety – team has recently estimated there are about 1400 serious injuries requiring hospitalisation each year.
That there is no systematic collection of injury data is one of the frustrations of quad bike safety researchers. They have many others.
Researcher/advocates such as Professor Raphael Grzebieta, from TARS, and Associate Professor Tony Lower, from Sydney University’s Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety, have long argued that quad bike design needs to change.
It could be rollover protection, and various roll protection bars are already on the market, for retro-fitting. But the industry remains firmly opposed to them. Most of Australia’s quad bikes are made in the US, where the use is mainly recreational, and less likely to involve rollovers. (In Australia, the dominant use is for farm work, although recreational use is increasingly popular.)
A page on the website of The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, which represents most of the Australian distributors, is headed ‘Don’t have a bar of it’.
The FCAI has funded for some years work by a Californian-based researcher, Dr John Zellner. He has consistently found that, based on computer simulations, roll bars are likely to introduce new injuries. There would be no net benefit.
Dr Zellner will be brought to Queensland this month, by the FCAI, to give evidence at the Queensland coronial inquest into nine deaths. He may also appear at the NSW inquest which began in February, investigating eight deaths.
There are other possible design changes. After leading a three year Worksafe NSW-funded study, Professor Grzebetia argues that stability could be increased by widening the track widths of quad bikes, and the dynamic handling could be improved by correcting what the TARS team found to be oversteering.
The quad bike industry is not enthusiastic. It emphasises change in user behaviour, rather than change in design. The industry in both countries wants people to be trained to ride quad bikes.
They should wear helmets and protective clothing, not drink alcohol before riding, and not be under 16. Those recommendations are usually written on a plate attached to quad bikes, and are frequently disregarded.
The FCAI argues that changing behaviour can be done a lot faster. Design change requirements could take years.
Raphael Grzebieta argues it should be the full package – user behaviour and design. He cites the Occupational Health and Safety ‘hierarchy of risk control’. The level 1 control in that principle includes ‘designing out hazards’.
But, aware that the impasse could go on, and on, he is recommending a safety star rating system be introduced for quad bikes. He says a consumer rating process is the only way forward.
‘That just overcomes all the political resistance,’ he said. ‘You just simply present to the consumers what you feel are the better performing vehicles and let them judge with their hip pocket’.
As far as those fun-looking kids’ quad bikes go, Jodie Cocco in Atherton wants people to think again.
She says: ‘People’s perception about a quad bike for young kids is that they are a toy for them to get on and ride on. However, they are a motorised vehicle. They are powerful and within a few seconds they can do severe damage, if not a fatality.’
• Ann Arnold is a journalist with Background Briefing. She recently tweeted for @WePublicHealth – check the week of 16 February in the WPH Archives.
• Ann’s recent investigation of “Doctors in Distress” generated huge interest.
Previously at Croakey