Quad Bikes: Staying on the Safe Side

July 4, 2018


Work Safety


Jacqui Jubb

In 2015, ABC’s Landline reported that farming is ranked the second-most dangerous job in Australia.

Not skydiving or race car driving or swimming with saltwater crocs. Farming. The reason? A single piece of equipment: the quad bike.

According to The Rural, agriculture accounts for only about 14% of the estimated 380,000 quad bikes being used in Australia but the sector is responsible for a disproportionately higher rate of deaths and injuries.

In fact, there’ve been over 200 quad-bike related deaths in Australia since 2001 and 64% of those have occurred on farms, which makes quad bikes the highest killer of workers in Australia.

The question is: who or what is to blame for these fatalities and incidents? Driver error or poor bike design leading to ‘rollovers’? Lack of training or children too young to know what they’re doing?

Here’s the lowdown on the recent quad bike law and the evolution of the debate in Australia.

Quad bikes (and calls for reform) on the rise

As recently reported in the ACCC Issues Paper on quad bike usage, the number of quad bikes (also known as ATVS – all terrain vehicles) sold and used on farms is expected to grow faster than it will for any other segment of the $230 million Australian market in coming years.

What this means, however, is that injuries and deaths are also high.

The ACCC paper notes that from 2011 to October 2017, quad bikes were responsible for 114 deaths and the 54 workers who died were almost exclusively employed in agriculture or rural based businesses and mostly occurred on a rural property.

Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety Associate, Professor Tony Lower, has cited the emotional toll on families, friends and communities as a result of farm accidents involving quad bikes as ‘indescribable’.

"We see some serious and really terrible trauma that does occur, and this has an impact that flows right on down through not just the family but also the community," Mr Lower told ABC in 2016.

"These people are not able to undertake work and family life and social activities in the way in which they normally would, and that has a major impact on the way they lead their life."

Experts have now called on the New South Wales Government to introduce a safety ratings system for quad bikes, with a new education campaign designed to reduce the high incidents of deaths and injuries, along with new laws introduced in 2017.

Farmer on ATV quad bike looking over his herd of sheep
Quad bikes were responsible for 114 deaths from 2011 to October 2017. Photo: iStock

2017: New quad bike safety laws

With children as young as 7 or 8 being able to ride a quad bike (especially on farms), it’s not surprising the regulator has stepped in to enhance safety standards and make some legislative changes.

In 2015, Deputy State Coroner, Sharon Freund, recommended a safety rating system for quad bikes and mandatory licences, helmets and seatbelts and that children under the age of 16 be banned from riding the vehicles. As of 1 February 2017, in Queensland:

  • Children under 8 years are prohibited from travelling as passengers on quad bikes, as well as any person who is unable to sit with their feet flat on the floor and hands on handholds; and
  • Mandatory helmet wearing for riders and passengers of quad bikes is incorporated in the Transport Operations (Road Use Management—Road Rules) Regulation Breaching this law will result in a fine and loss of demerit points. 

The debate has focused around which of these measures has the greatest impact on reduction in injuries and fatalities and it appears the views are split on this issue.

Kids, helmets and driver awareness

One of the primary concerns is how easy it is to flip a quad bike. According to the ACCC, 55% of all deaths associated with quad bikes result from a rollover or the ATV over-turning, with about 90% of that fatal category occurring on-farms.

And yet, some believe that keeping children off the bikes is one of the smartest measures to reduce the risks. Coroner John Lock looked into the deaths of 9 Queenslanders aged from 9 to 86 who died in quad bike accidents between March 2012 and January 2014 and in his findings pointed to research that children are 12 times more likely to suffer serious injuries in quad bike accidents than adults.

Director of Quadsafe Australia, Colin Lawson, did not agree with the recommendation that children should be banned from riding quad bikes during the inquest, and said that his view had not changed. Instead, he believes that helmets are the best protection for children and adults.

Mr Collins said current industry evidence suggested that only 20 percent of people in Australia were using helmets, a statistic which also results from the warm conditions in rural Australia and the overall unpopularity of helmets in the culture of farming.

“We know this (wearing a helmet) can improve injuries by 64 per cent and we can reduce fatality outcomes by 42 per cent,” he said. 

The Quadsafe Australia website also notes that ATVs are safe when operated correctly and that operator complacency is a “leading contributor to Australian ATV related fatalities.”

Mr Lawson has said he would like to see specific training programs for farmers, with government subsidies available to encourage more people to engage.

Mr Lower has reported that while he agreed training was necessary, there was no evidence to suggest it would reduce deaths or accidents in any great manner, favouring the elimination of the regular use of quad bikes with other vehicles, such as side-by-side varieties, as one of the more useful strategies.

Child on an ATV quad bike
Children are 12 times more likely to suffer serious injuries in quad bike accidents than adults. Photo: iStock

Worrying Statistics

The Centre for Accident Research & Road Safety Queensland reports that:

  • From 2003-2011 almost 8000 patients were admitted to hospital for quad bike related injuries
  • The average length of stay for children was 2.5 days and the average length of stay for adults was 3.4 days
  • 15% of child admissions and 25% of adult admissions were classified as ‘serious’
  • Of the recreational injuries that occurred in 1999-2013, the most common place of injury was a farm – 46% of children and 40pc of adult injuries.
Jacqui Jubb

Jacqui Jubb is a senior lawyer and writer for the Smith's Lawyers blog on legal interest and workers rights topics.