Quad bike manufacturers resist the inevitable

Pressure is increasing on the manufacturers of quad bikes in Australia and from a variety of sources.

The Weekly Times newspaper continues, almost fortnightly, to report on the safety debate about the use and design of quad bikes.  The 9 June edition has a double-page spread on the issue with many direct quotes from “players” in the debate.  The fact that a national rural newspaper has devoted this level of column inches is indicative of the controversy.  The Australian metropolitan dailies have not followed this lead but, as we have seen in previous blog posts, major New Zealand papers have covered the issues.

Some Australian government departments are applying the cautionary principle under legislative occupational health and safety (OHS) obligation and have restricted the use of quad bikes pending risk assessments.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has heard that one department, New South Wales’ National Parks & Wildlife Service, has passed through the assessment phase  and will be fitting Crush Protection Devices (CPDs) to their quad bikes by the end of August 2011.

A source close to the debate has told SafetyAtWorkBlog that

  • There is an increased likelihood for coroners’ inquests in a number of states;
  • The quad bike industry has begun formally misrepresenting the value of CPDs in posters, of which several have been provided to quad bike distributors; and
  • The industry continue to assert that research shows CPDs cause more harm than good but provide no evidence of this.

The Weekly Times article is well worth reading for many reasons but one in particular is to examine the language used by Rhys Griffiths, the representative for the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) on the quad bike issue.

One text box (not available online) quotes prominent participants in the debate.  Griffiths says

“The FCAI manufacturers will continue to support as they have done for many years, training, wearing of approved helmets, appropriate usage and correct vehicle selection, but will not support the fitment of untested, unproven devices that are not supported by any scientific evidence to offer the ATV user any greater level of protection.”

Other people in the text box such as John Lambert, Forensic Engineering Society of Australia vice-president, and Dr Shane Richardson of Delta V Experts and a technical engineering group member of the Heads of Workplace Safety Authorities, have undertaken research specifically into the safety of quadbikes.  Local expert evidence is available, some provided through this blog.

The Weekly Times article says that Griffiths:

“maintains there is no strong evidence to support the fitting of any kind of rollover protection or anti-crush devices.  (Authorities) rely on very shallow research and reporting of ATV accidents…  They choose to place farmers and other users of this product at greater risk of injury, or worse, by supporting the use of a product that has no standard for which it can be tested.  There’s no science-based evidence that places it as a positive for safety outcomes and no other country … has seen fit to recommend.”

These quotes illustrate exactly why the issue of quad bike safety is more broadly relevant to the OHS discipline and ties into recurrent themes of this blog:

  • The role of evidence-based decision making;
  • The relevance of Australian Standards and the issue of “compliance” to a set of guidelines;
  • The need for safety in design; and
  • The continuing relevance of the Hierarchy of Controls in safety decisions.

Of more political interest is the quote by Duncan Fraser of the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), an organisation known for its rural conservatism.  Fraser is cautious in his wording but the NFF position does not follow that of the FCAI.

“NFF’s position on ATVs is simple.  Like any item of farm equipment, proper care should be taken in their use and (adhere) to the manufacturer’s guidelines.  NFF also supports the voluntary addition of secondary safety items to ATV’s, namely full-frame ROPS or simple, post-type roll bars.  But their fitment should be at the discretion of the ATV owner as circumstances vary depending on where and how the ATVs are operated.”

Australia’s farming representatives are often critical of any mandatory safety impositions, principally due to the increased cost to farmers.  But the cultural change of roll-over protective structures (ROPS) on tractors is a case-study of how mandatory safety measures can be imposed once the cost burden is reduced, or removed, through the application of government rebates.

A 1998 research study by L. Day & G. Rechnitzer (Dr George Rechnitzer is now part of Delta V Experts with Dr Richardson) found that

“The 1997/98 ROPS rebate scheme was extremely successful when measured against a number of criteria. This study found that the 1997/98 ROPS scheme reduced the number of unprotected tractors in Victoria by 70% from an estimated 17,420 to 5,290. The proportion of unprotected tractors in Victoria is now approximately 7%, compared with on estimated 24% at the commencement of the scheme.

The demand for the ROPS rebates was substantially higher than in any previous scheme, with the uptake rate for the 1997/98 scheme being four times that of the last rebate scheme in 1994. Penetration of the scheme extended well beyond the membership of the VFF [Victorian Farmers Federation is affiliated with the National Farmers Federation], with 73% of applicants being non-members, and 21% being self nominated hobby farmers. All participant groups and organisations (farmers, farm machinery dealers, the VFF and the FMDA [Farm Machinery Dealers Association] were satisfied with the scheme, and problems of obtaining ROPS for the older model tractors were not overwhelming.

An estimated 2 deaths per year will be prevented by the 12,129 ROPS fitted, for a period of at least 10 years. The total cost of the rebate scheme was $7,877,344. If 20 deaths are prevented, $393,867 will have been spent per life saved. The lifetime economic cost per rollover death is estimated at $571,735 and $1,646,482 for the human capitol and “willingness-to-pay” approaches respectively. This cost outcome analysis should only be used as a tool to guide selection of effective interventions. It is not intended to be used as a justification for the prevention of rollover deaths.

The societal benefits go beyond economic considerations. Psychological trauma, pain and suffering associated with tractor rollover deaths will be considerably reduced in Victoria. In addition, improvements in other areas of farm safety may occur due to the scheme publicity. More importantly, the combination of increased awareness of the importance of farm safety, and the strengthened partnerships between key organisations, may provide a springboard from which further farm safety initiatives can be launched.” [emphasis added]

The tone of optimism in the last paragraph of this quote is absent from much of the current debate into the safety of quadbikes.  Tractors were retrofitted with ROPS but now the safety principles of roll-over protection have been integrated into new tractors by the manufacturers.  It seems that quadbike manufacturers are not so visionary as to see the inevitable result of the current safety debate.

It is only necessary to go back a couple of decades to find a safety lesson from history with tractors and ROPS.  It seems odd to find a Luddite approach from the manufacturers of machinery but the resistance to change in this industry sector is remarkable.  The longer the resistance, the less chance there is to prevent deaths from quadbike rollovers.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

5 thoughts on “Quad bike manufacturers resist the inevitable”

  1. My mother was one of the people killed this year by a quad bike. if this device was fitted there would be a highly likely chance that she would be alive today. I am only 13 and I think that this device can help many more people so families like mine should not have to go through this grief. There shouldn\’t be a problem like this in such a great country. install the device on all new quad bikes to stop such a horrible thing happening.

  2. I reckon it’s a cluster of things,


    rather than OHS ‘growing up’ as you suggest. That part will come drooping slow over time methinks. I hope. But so far as the quad bike safety debate goes here are some factors that are driving it:

    1. Continuing deaths, mostly in rollovers/tip overs. Once caught under the machine you’re in mortal peril;

    2. 12 fatalities already this year. That means that these machines kill more people per year than the entire mining industry in Australia;

    3. In the order of 15 times that figure are injured and probably an order of magnitude larger still go unreported; these are the terrorising near misses;

    4. All of that led to the creation of the TransTasman group to see if something could be done. The industry was represented by some 10 people at a time, who ran more or less a single loud script;

    5. My own impressions were (as a member of that group for a while) that their bullying manner was unhelpful to their cause, and was distasteful in an open OHS conversation, particularly when so many riders were being killed whilst we talked. This manner culminated in a formal letter being read out by one of the CEOs in the room at one such meeting, stating that they would walk out as group if any discussion was opened on Crush Protection Devices (CPDs). They had spoken! (And later apologised in a flood of remorseful tears).

    6. I’ve been at thousands of meetings on matters OHS through the years, both in Australia and overseas. Not once have I witnessed such a manner, even if the industry was very much against my views (e.g. the lead industry, the synthetic mineral fibres industry, the chemical industry – the AWU banned parathion ethyl 10 years before the national authority did the same, yet the industry kept talking);

    These are some of the events that encourage people to continue to struggle against unreasonable dogmatism. And of course there have been some outstanding people willing to be counted on this issue. People like John Lambert, a highly experienced forensic engineer committed to H&S; Dr Tony Lower (Sydney University), and before him the outstanding work in this area by Professor Lyn Fragar – a giant and pioneer in agricultural health and safety matters. These people, and others, were left with a bad taste (it seems to me) watching the industry’s behaviour.

    All people in OHS are well aware of many international scandals (e.g. asbestos, tobacco, DBCP….), and some very clumsy and silly approaches to H&S by companies like B.P., BHP-Billiton and Esso resulting in many people being killed.

    The quad bike industry has not learnt. They are thoroughly naive about OHS and arrogant in their approach. Why else would they write things like this in their industry-proposed code of practice?

    “…..in the USA, where nearly 7 million ATVs are in use, an analysis of accident data collected by the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates (2001) that 92% of ATV fatalities are the result of user neglect of on-vehicle warning labels, and the remaining deaths are the result of other forms of misuse warned against in owner\’s manuals. The principal forms of misuse involve not wearing a helmet approved for ATV use, carrying passengers on single operator ATVs, use of adult sized ATVs by children under 16 years old, use on paved surfaces, lack of suitable training, overloading and use of alcohol and drugs whilst operating ATVs.”

    Why would such an industry not understand the OHS naïveté displayed in such statements? Why wouldn’t they understand that essentially by calling (even by proxy) dead and seriously injured riders ‘neglectful and misusers’ they place themselves at the voracious, greedy and heartless end of business?

    Their machines are very useful work tools, but too often they kill. And despite all the talk about neglect and misuse, training, helmets, personal responsibility they continue to kill and seriously injure. What’s so hard to understand in all this? Usefulness alone is not enough – as the asbestos industry found out with asbestos and the many very costly class actions they now confront.
    They also choose to ignore Coroner Olle’s comment in his findings that quads are ‘prone to rollover’ even when ridden by careful and responsible riders. They advocate that riders ‘dance for their lives’ (my terminology) in the machine seat (saddle type) to counter complex motions of the quad, ‘active riding’ they like to call this.

    I’m afraid, Col, that it’s a dark foreboding to know that more people full of life in Australia are likely to be killed by these machines in the next few months.

    Finally, the industry, through their peak body, has been circulating “Don’t have a bar of it…” posters, claiming that Crush Protection Devices (CPDs) will cause more harm than good. I challenge the industry to publically reproduce the exact research quotes, the exact numbers, and the exact references they rely on to make these comments. Not general statements. They may also try and provide a rational explanation of the very dodgy risk-benefit ratio they rely on.

    Or – more constructively – they could help to organise a public, international-class conference in Australia to open the debate: \”Quad Bikes: Prone to Rollover or Prone to Misuse?\” But they must also get speakers whose opinons they don\’t like. Will you hold your breath?

  3. There is probably a thesis in the machinations of how we have got to this point with quads. It\’s a significantly different situation compared to the CPDs for tractors; in that situation take-up of CPDs on tractors was pushed by legislation (and subsidies), but done with tractors manufacturers already choosing to fit CPDs as standard on new tractors.

    This situation is more a case of that often quoted, but rarely spotted common sense prevailing in OHS – with a fair measure of bold moves thrown in the mix. Not the least being one bloke deciding he\’d seen enough injuries happening and taking the plunge to make something to fix it ,and getting some first rate engineering investigation done.

    Add the focus this blog has given to the topic, the biting-the-bullet by WorkSafe Vic and their counterparts backing it, and now the AWU solid\’s position on the CPD being essential. Quite a mix of elements to get to deliver \”common sense\”!

    The interesting thing will be to see if the line will be held. I\’m optimistic enough to think that, as you\’ve said KJ, that this is all inevitable; CPDs are gunna be seen as the smart thing to have on a quad. What excites me as an ex-legislation bloke, is this is happening without any specific legislation forcing it to happen. Could it be that, at least with this issue, OHS is actually \”growing up\” in Oz?

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