ATV death season

Legislators have to get tough with manufacturers. Because the drivers can’t seem to save themselves.

Well, we’re into a new death season. The snowmobile one is over, and we’re now into the ATV death season.

Over the last few decades, we’ve become wealthy enough to afford powerful, shiny machines to speed us to our graves. If you don’t think we’re a rich society, you’re just too recently born.

When I was a kid, many got to their graves on foot or by bicycle. Not every family could afford to own even one car, let alone two or three, or any other motorized vehicle. Kids (and many adults) got around on bicycles. No choice. If your family did own a car, and you asked your Dad (Moms didn’t drive) to take you somewhere, he’d laugh in your face. Where’s your bike?

Passengers often left a forehead-shaped shatter print on the windshield

As you approached 16, you began to think of getting your licence, because then, if you wanted to go far, or fast, or both, instead of pedaling like a maniac until your thighs were on fire, heart pounding, lungs exploding, you’d just push a little bit with your right foot. How utterly, unbelievably, effortlessly cool. When that blessed day arrived, let me tell you, you were in Heaven. Bike be damned.

And yes, there was carnage. No question. Because when a young man hits 16, there’s one thing he’s dying to experience. And a close second to that is the feeling of being in control of a powerful machine. Emphasis on powerful.

Cars were not built to be safe back then. They were built to be big, sleek, stylish, sexy, and fast. If you rolled one, you were likely to die. It you hit a pole or another car head-on, the steering wheel was likely to crush your chest and kill you. Passengers often left a forehead-shaped shatter print on the windshield, if they didn’t go right through it, body and bones. Into the pole.

It was not pretty

But it kept on happening, for a few simple reasons. Alcohol impairment was one. Testosterone, the power hormone, was another. And, of course, the invincibility of the young person. The first, we’re making progress on. The last two will never change.

I heard the other day about researchers doing functional MRIs on adolescents, and discovering that the part of the brain responsible for recognizing danger, and avoiding it, is not fully developed until well after adolescence is past. In other words, if you’re 18, that part of your brain that would keep you from doing something monumentally stupid – it’s missing. Or in diapers.

Eventually, cars were made safer, but – nota bene – not because manufacturers gave a tinker’s damn about highway deaths. They had to be forced through legislation.

Enter the recreational vehicle. Snowmobile for winter, all-terrain vehicle for summer.

“Skidoo?” everyone said.
“What kind of a name is that?”

I remember when the Skidoo first showed up. Early to mid-60s. Goose Bay, Labrador. “Skidoo?” everyone said. “What kind of a name is that?” Weird name or not, they became so popular, so fast, they make the rise of Facebook look like a lame joke.

Their little engines put out eight horsepower, just a whisker more than my present snowblower. But even that could get you going fast enough, it was soon discovered, that if you interfaced with a telephone pole, you were dead.

Nowadays, I expect the starting motor on a snowmobile puts out eight horsepower. Yamaha’s 2012 snowmobile line-up includes the Apex X-TX, whose engine puts out over 150 horsepower. It costs just over $17,000. Basically, it’s a roofless sub-compact car with track and skis.

Still don’t think we’re a rich society?

Tommy’s Honda 50

When we were 14 or 15ish, my buddy Tommy Coates (of 1956 Ford Custom fame) got a Honda Cub. This cute scooter-like motorcycle with a no-clutch transmission was more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Its little 50 cubic centimetre engine put out four horsepower. Top speed – 80 km/h. I couldn’t count the number of times Tommy and I came close to killing ourselves. It’s only now I realize our brains weren’t yet fully developed.

ATVs have two more wheels than Tommy’s Honda did, but still, the ATV has to be the most dangerous machine ever built. To make its way over “all terrains,” they have big fat tires, with relatively low air pressure, which helps with the ride. But in terms of stability, imagine replacing the tires on your bike with exercise balls. Bouncy. Unpredictable. Not built for speed. On an ATV, speed equals danger.

Even Henry Ford knew it’s got
to be faster and more powerful

Yet, what’s a manufacturer to do?  The life cycle of any motorized vehicle starts out with a basic model, then every year after that, to encourage continually-ramping-up-lust, you make it better than last year’s. Better how? Well, more safety features certainly won’t arouse anyone. Even Henry Ford knew it’s got to be faster and more powerful. That’s how you get a male’s attention.

So while you could, if you tried, get killed on an eight-horsepower Skidoo or a four horsepower Honda in the ’60s, today, as with everything else, it’s effortless.

ATVs now come with engines in the range of 750 ccs, an engine that, in a motorcycle, would take you to 150 km/h in two or three blinks. You can’t drive an ATV that fast on a dirt or gravel trail, but the point is there’s a huge reservoir of power there, and there will always be people wanting to race down the fine line between thrill and doom. Oops.

In the old days, people were much more judgmental and far less empathetic than we are now. If a young fella smacked into a pole and ended up in a wheelchair for life, Dad would say, “Well, he won’t be doing much speeding in that thing, now, will he?” That’s as much as was said about it. “Now, where were we? What’s trumps again?”

Modern media milk the maudlin

Nowadays, modern media being what they are, especially since the word “trauma” came into vogue, we all collectively live through the grief and the agony of lives foolishly lost. It’s all there on the TV. Parents, aunts, fiancées, friends all sharing with us every last molecule of the pain, the cameras lingering in close-up for whatever embarrassing eternity it takes before that precious glistening tear spills down the cheek. The money shot. None of us is immune to being affected by that, even if simultaneously enraged.

Yes, b’y. What a rig! Wicked!

Yet, we’re powerless to do anything to prevent it. The Hondas and Yamahas and Bombardiers keep cranking out ever more powerful rigs. No one ever says, “There’s something I want mine to do, that it doesn’t,” and yet there’s always a lineup to buy the latest model. Yes, b’y. What a rig! Wicked!

Those of us who are not into such things can only shake our heads and wonder how long it will be before another youngster (or not-so-young-ster) half-cut, or wrecked on testosterone, or with an under-developed brain, or all three, decides to see what he can get out of ‘er.

Make snowmobiles float

There’s not much to be done about snowmobiles going through the ice, unless they can put inflatable floats on either side of them like the Sikorsky choppers have. A big red panic button in the middle of the handlebars – push it and poof, like the life-vests in airplanes, they inflate instantly and you’re afloat. Life saved.

But it would never catch on. Not sexy.

Too expensive? Big shaggin’ deal. Take out the seat warmers and DVD player.

Roll cages on ATVs

ATVs? One big problem with ATVs is getting thrown from them, or having them roll over on you. A laughably simple solution would be to put a roll cage over the driver like they have on those dune buggies you see racing on TV. With a roll cage, you’ve also got a framework to attach a good harness so the driver can be belted in and not get thrown. Life saved.

But it would never catch on. Not sexy.

Seat belts were considered a distinctly un-sexy pain in the ass when they first came out. Too bad. If you’re idiotic enough to have to be legislated into saving your own life, so be it. They worked. Eventually, they were accepted.

Until legislators come around, we’ve nothing to pin our hopes on but the few pathetic regulations the brain trust has thus far come up with.

You have to wear a helmet. Big deal.

You have to wear a helmet. Big deal. I’m sure they do save lives. But wearing a helmet in an ATV crash strikes me as like a hockey goalie wearing only his mask – part of him is protected, but he still isn’t by any means safe.

There are age restrictions on the operation of ATVs and snowmobiles, and that’s a good thing, although it hasn’t put an end to the deaths.

Eventually, legislators will have to get tough with manufacturers. Ways will be found to make the machines safer, as was the case with cars. Once, they were a death trap. But my new Caravan is so stogged with air bags, I figure being in a crash in that baby would be like falling into a dumpster full of pillows.

In the meantime, if any more people, young or old, die senselessly because they hit a stump while flying through the woods, I hope I just don’t hear about it. I’ve seen enough grieving relatives on TV to last a lifetime. Make it stop.

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