Young riders need to be protected from ATVs

Children who don’t have a driver’s license should not be allowed to drive ATVs.

Growing up in Ontario I was fortunate enough as a child in the Sixties and teen in the Seventies to enjoy a Huck Finnish life. The rest of my life has been rather Peter Panish, never wanting to grow up while accepting more responsibility as a contributing member of society and as a parent — much to the consternation of an ex-wife, a few former employers and assorted authority figures.

We went canoeing whenever we felt like it, dove into the Napanee River off an assortment of bridges, played hockey on the river or traffic and we all got pellet rifles at an early age. (No glass eyes among us.)

My dad was a volunteer fireman and the department held a fundraising raffle one year leading up to Christmas. It was quite a thrill for our family when my mom won the draw and we took possession of a Boa-Ski snowmobile.

We lived on the edge of town and we were practically surrounded by cornfields — what a great place to learn how to drive a snowmobile. You could go for a mile before you had to make a turn but there were always undulating drifts to swish up and down on. We had our mishaps, a broken ski here, a rollover there but we never got hurt because we were trained by our parents and we wore proper gear.

Back in the old days, before Humvees became station wagons for soccer moms, ATVs were tools for farmers, loggers, oil companies and the military. Not surprisingly, some enterprising salesman decided to market these machines as recreational vehicles to a population no longer content to enjoy a quiet hike in the wilderness or to ride high in the saddle with a noble steed.

Albertans love their toys. Every weekend we see fifth-wheel trucks pulling RVs with a trailer full of quads or towing a boat. Chances are, if you don’t own a quad or snowmobile, you know someone who does.

But Albertans are paying a steep price for the buying power of their disposable income. Between 2002 and 2007 there were 81 ATV-related deaths, including 10 children under the age of 16 and seven teens aged 16 to 19. There was an 83-per-cent increase in ATV-related deaths in Alberta between 2005 and 2006. Just last week at least two Albertans died in ATV upsets.

The law requires that parents buckle their children into car seats — and that they can’t ride up front until they reach a certain height and weight. The law requires that all operators of motorized boats pass a proficiency test. The law requires children to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle; yet there is no proficiency requirement for quad drivers, nor are they required to wear a helmet.

Yes, government-fearing Albertans believe the government shouldn’t intrude unnecessarily into our lives, but the state does have a responsibility to set a minimum standard of protection for young riders of ATVs. Our elected politicians have a legal obligation to protect Alberta’s most vulnerable citizens from harm and neglect — and the irresponsible decisions of their parents.

Some lax counties allow ATVs, including snowmobiles, to drive in the ditches along rural and secondary roads, exposing automobile motorists to yet another hazard. Some counties, even more carefree, allow ATVs to be driven on county roads as long as the driver is 16 and has a driver’s license. That’s irresponsible.

It’s difficult to enforce society’s laws when children are herding cattle on the family farm, or out quadding with grandpa in the Eastern Slopes on summer vacation but that doesn’t mitigate the government’s need to make ATV use a safer leisure activity. Until politicians repeal the laws of physics, riders’ safety must be of paramount concern for manufacturers, legislators, parents and riders themselves. Breaking fresh powder with a snowmobile or splashing around in a mud bog with a quad is exhilarating fun.

But young riders and stunting drivers make poor decisions. Children who don’t have a driver’s license should not be allowed to drive ATVs. These rigs are adult toys and any manufacturer or parent who encourages children to ride these powerful machines is putting lives at risk.