More than half of ATV drivers killed in Alberta had been drinking, according to research from the Injury Prevention Centre at the University of Alberta's School of Public Health.

"People think they're off public roads and doing some recreation activity, and having a few drinks is probably a good way to relax and enjoy the activity," said centre director Don Voaklander.

"But you're still driving a motor vehicle and as we know motor vehicles and alcohol don't mix very well." 

The centre began tracking ATV statistics in 2002. It says 149 ATV drivers were killed by 2013.

Out of the 130 drivers tested for alcohol, 55 per cent of them had alcohol in their blood. 

  • Seven per cent had low levels (under 0.05 BAC).
  • 51 per cent were over 0.05, which is unsafe and illegal to drive (vehicle would be impounded).
  • 42 per cent were drunk, meaning they were over 0.08 and violating the Criminal Code.

Major trauma victims show a similar pattern. Of those tested in that time, 43 per cent were positive for alcohol and 36 per cent were over the legal limit.

Health-care costs in the millions

The direct cost of ATV injuries to Alberta's health system was roughly $16 million in 2013, which works out to an average of $13,909 for each person hospitalized with an ATV injury.

  • $9.5 million for hospital admissions. 
  • $3.8 million for ambulatory care visits.
  • $2.7 million for physician services.

The cost is $18,000 if a head injury is involved, according to centre research.

"Monetary costs to the health system are one thing, but the human cost is what we're trying to prevent here," said Voaklander.

"What really is at stake are those lost husbands, brothers, sons daughters, wives, etc., that cannot be replaced."

He says ATV deaths can be reduced in Alberta by changing the culture and enforcing rules against drinking and driving.

Calls for mandatory helmet use

Voaklander says mandatory helmet use and adhering to manufacture guidelines for appropriate ATV and off-highway vehicles for youth based on size and age would also make a difference.

  Fast facts

  • Age group 20-24 has the highest rate of ATV-related deaths at roughly three times higher than other age groups.

  • More than half of ATV incidents causing death are rollovers.

  • May, June and July are the months when most ATV deaths occur.  

He says children under 16 should be prohibited from riding or being passengers on adult size vehicles, and no passengers of any age should ride an ATV built for one rider. 

Alberta is also the only province without a helmet law.  

But roughly 14 per cent of those who died  from head injuries were wearing a helmet. 

Voaklander says helmets can't protect against excessive speed and the weight of a vehicle in a rollover.

'Side-by-side' ATVs a growing concern

That concern is amplified in the "side-by-side" ATVs, which he says are a growing problem for kids and women. 

The vehicles are perceived to be safer because they're equipped with seat belts and rollover bars, but many people who use them are not buckling up.

"We're seeing a rise in the number of female deaths, which suggests the side by sides are becoming more popular with that demographic," he said. 

Alberta also lags behind several other provinces when it comes to ATV laws, including Nova Scotia where age and weight guidelines are enforced for children and teens.

Training also needed, says expert

Nova Scotia has also required anyone using an ATV since 2012 to have training, something Voaklander says should be mandatory in Alberta.

It would help younger riders avoid some of the injuries sustained from basic manoeuvres, such as negotiating hills and displacing their weight when turning corners.

Education would also send a clear message on the dangers of drinking and driving ATVs, Voaklander says. 

Alberta's transportation minister has asked his department to provide a range of options on how to best approach the issue of ATV safety, and will be engaging with key stakeholders to get their views, the Alberta government said in a written statement.

"The government will take a balanced approach that respects the use of ATVs while ensuring the safety of all users," it said.