Province shelved poll showing wide support for ATV safety laws

A government-commissioned poll, obtained by CBC News, shows Albertans overwhelmingly support a helmet-safety law for all-terrain vehicle users.
Alberta Transportation Minister Ric McIver said ATV helmet legislation is not being considered at this time. (CBC)

A government-commissioned poll, obtained by CBC News, shows Albertans overwhelmingly support a helmet-safety law for all-terrain vehicle users.

But Alberta Transportation shelved the poll, and draft helmet-safety legislation, back in 2008 and has no plans to introduce legislation despite a mounting ATV injury and death toll.

The poll, conducted by Leger Marketing, found 84 per cent of Albertans supported a mandatory helmet-use law. Another 61 per cent supported a minimum age of 16 for ATV riders.

"This government covers up any information that doesn’t fit its agenda," Calgary Liberal MLA Dr. David Swann said Thursday.

Ten days ago, Swann’s nephew died after he was thrown from an ATV near Bragg Creek. He was not wearing a helmet.

"The only other person who was there found him under a tree, with major brain trauma, with the machine on top of him," Swann said.

So far this year, nine people in Alberta have been killed in ATV accidents. Four were not wearing helmets.

Ric McIver is Alberta’s new transportation minister. In an interview with CBC, he admitted he had not seen either the poll, or a recently released landmark study by University of Calgary researchers. It showed the ATV injury and death toll will continue to rise unless safety legislation is introduced.

Despite this, McIver said he is not considering ATV safety legislation.

"I guess there are other priorities we are dealing with and I haven’t been convinced yet that we need ATV legislation," McIver said.

Minister dismisses poll

Although the poll was commissioned by McIver’s own department, he dismissed it as irrelevant because it polled all Albertans, not specifically ATV users.

"I think if you were to ask the average Albertan, if there was some group, completely separate from what they do, if we were to add more rules around what they do, they would say, ‘Sure, because it doesn’t affect my life.’"

Kathy Belton of the Alberta Centre for Injury Control & Research at the University of Alberta has been part of the lobby pressing for ATV safety legislation for years. She said groups representing ATV users, dealers and others support such legislation. And so does another arm of the government.

"We’re funded by Alberta Health and they’re very supportive of helmet legislation," she said. "But there appears to be a disconnect between the health side of the house and the transportation minister."

Belton said she was not surprised by McIver’s negative "knee jerk reaction" to safety legislation.

"I think that knee jerk reaction comes from his witnessing how the Alberta government has dealt with similar issues in the past," Belton said. "They have always been the last one to implement safety legislation.

This government, for whatever reason, has always had a focus on education rather than legislation – and I am not saying that education is bad – but education is just one tool in the process of injury prevention."

Minister not convinced law could be enforced

McIver told CBC he was not convinced that, even if there was legislation, that it could be enforced, and unless he could be convinced, he would not bring legislation forward.

But in fact, in 2008, his department officials believed a law could be enforced. The CBC has obtained minutes from a June 23, 2008 meeting attended by transportation department officials, safety researchers, and representatives of the Alberta Snowmobile Association and the Alberta Off-Highway Vehicles Association.

"There was consensus among stakeholders that helmets should be mandatory," the minutes state. "While it was agreed that enforcement would be difficult, there was the feeling that this legislation would be generally accepted by (off-highway vehicle) users."

Belton said McIver’s opinion ignores what his own department already knows and what research has clearly shown. When safety is codified by law, the public tends to obey the law.

She pointed to seatbelt legislation. Alberta, in 1987, was one of the last provinces to enact mandatory seatbelt safety laws.

But she said the province now has more than 90 per cent compliance, which has helped eliminate thousands of needless injuries and deaths.

Belton said that by not enacting safety legislation, the government is sending the message, "that we really don’t care what you do. We will pick you up after you are hurt, but you’re almost like a disposable item."

Belton said the government needs to act because ATV injuries are now "almost at an epidemic level."

Study finds high rate of injuries and deaths

The U of C study found 459 major ATV trauma cases, such as broken back and necks, and serious head injuries, in a 10-year span. Seventy-nine people died from ATV crashes in that same period. The study estimated the cost to Alberta’s health care system was $6.5 million.

But that figure did not include hundreds of other ATV injuries such as broken limbs, smashed faces and cuts, all of which are common injuries.

Swann, a medical doctor, said McIver seemed not to understand that ATV injuries and deaths affect all Albertans, not just ATV riders.

"Whether you talk about the nearly 700 admissions to hospital, or the 10 times as many injuries that come into emergencies, every year from ATVs, the costs are enormous to individuals, their families and society," Swann said. "We can do more, and we must do more."

Swann said McIver needs to be "cut some slack" because he is a new minister.

But he said when McIver phoned him recently to offer condolences over the death of his nephew, he extracted a promise from the minister to look at the ATV safety issue as soon as possible.