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