Family pushes for stronger safety measures for ATV riders after son's death
At least 555 Canadians have died riding ATVs and snowmobiles since 2018
When they hear the roar of all-terrain vehicles racing past their Trenton, Ont., property on a nearby trail, Meredith and Chris McLeod are transported back to the worst day of their lives.
Three and a half years have passed since their son, nine-year-old Horatio McLeod, was thrown from a youth-sized side-by-side vehicle that was driven by his 10-year-old friend.
"It's really tough to watch, especially just the little children driving by themselves," Meredith McLeod said about the riders near their home.
Horatio, the family later learned, went through the windshield when the young driver hit a steel culvert on the side of the road. Horatio wore a helmet, but his parents say a coroner's investigation found he wasn't wearing a seatbelt.
He passed away at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa the next morning, after multiple surgeries to try to stop internal bleeding.
Reminders of Horatio are everywhere at the family's home, including a garden planted in his memory outside, and his bedroom, left unchanged from the day he went to his friend's house on Sept. 9, 2017.
For the McLeods, the best way to honour Horatio's life would be changes to legislation that they hope could prevent another family from experiencing the same nightmare.
Last fall, the Ontario government held a coroner's inquest into Horatio's death. The inquest jury produced 27 recommendations that, if implemented, would dramatically change the pastime across Canada, both for youth and adult riders.
But despite the recommendations, and despite the hundreds of lives lost in off-road vehicle crashes since Horatio died, there's no sign yet that governments plan to make significant changes to try to improve safety.
"This is why we're doing this ... to advocate for the parents that are just as naive as we were," Meredith McLeod said.
That day was the first time Horatio had ever been on any kind of all-terrain vehicle. His father agreed to let him go on a ride with his friend's family, so long as he didn't operate the machine himself. The McLeods say the other boy's parents joined them on the ride on a separate machine, travelling ahead of the boys. Horatio was excited to try something new.
It's a scene Chris McLeod replays in his head often, wishing he made a different decision.
"I didn't even know how powerful that actual machine was," he said.
An inquisitive, driven boy
Horatio's parents remember him as an inquisitive and driven boy who loved all things space and dreamed of becoming an astronaut or a pilot. He was so determined in this goal that he enrolled in French immersion shortly before the crash, knowing he needed to speak both official languages to reach his goals.
He had a mind for fixing things, and his teachers often called upon Horatio to help with their technology. The school installed a "buddy bench" in his memory, designed for children to use when they feel lonely and need a friend to come sit with them.
His parents say they didn't know many details about what happened on the day of the crash until they heard evidence at the coroner's inquest, which was held three years after Horatio died.
The inquest is also where the McLeods learned they weren't alone in their grief after losing a loved one in an off-road vehicle crash.
Finding out how many people have died on the machines was "heart wrenching" for the family, Meredith McLeod said.
"For the first three years, we were just a family that lost their son and everyone felt for us and the outpouring of the community was absolutely exceptional," she said.
"But I didn't realize I had a voice until the inquest. That's what changed."
At least 555 deaths since 2018
Since 2018, after Horatio died, at least 555 Canadians have been killed in ATV and snowmobile crashes, and that number is likely an undercount. CBC News compiled the figure by surveying coroner's offices and police and searching news articles from across the country, but finding complete and up-to-date data broken down by province and territory was a challenge.
"The number [of deaths] is high and it absolutely is one component that we need to think about," said Pamela Fuselli, the president and CEO of Parachute, an injury prevention organization based in Toronto. Parachute had standing at the coroner's inquest into Horatio's death.
"But each of those numbers, if you will, is a person. When you bring it down to that level, when you hear the stories of families that have lost loved ones or have been injured and permanently disabled or have had a long road to recovery from an injury, you really start to understand the magnitude of each of those numbers."
The recommendations produced at the inquest include mandatory training, new age limits, better tracking of injuries and deaths, and changes to the way off-road vehicles are designed. The latter is something that injury prevention experts and medical professionals have long called for, arguing the machines are prone to tip or roll over.
The inquest jury also accepted a recommendation from the McLeods that says youth-sized off-road vehicles shouldn't be sold "until safety innovations and off-road vehicle standards demonstrate a reduction in off-road vehicle (ORV) injuries/fatalities in adults due to their implementation."
Some of the recommendations were made to provincial government departments in Ontario, such as the Ministry of Transportation, while others go a step further and call for change from the federal government.
The inquest jury suggested any legislative changes be called Horatio's Law, an idea his parents love.
Governments haven't committed to change yet
"Most of the recommendations I don't think are over the top," Chris McLeod said.
"It's to teach you how to use these things and make sure that you're old enough to make the proper decisions so that you can enjoy these things safely."
But four months after the inquest jury made its recommendations, neither Ontario's Ministry of Transportation nor Transport Canada have committed to making changes. No one was made available from either level of government for an interview about the recommended changes.
WATCH: The McLeods are on a mission to push for better ATV safety rules:
"We take the recommendations made by the coroner seriously and are currently reviewing each recommendation to determine appropriate next steps," Mike Fenn, a senior issues adviser with Ontario's Ministry of Transportation, wrote in an emailed statement.
A spokesperson for Transport Canada said the department received the coroner's report "and has taken note of the proposed recommendations," but did not specify what, if any, changes it might make.
Training for youth not mandatory in all provinces
Some of the recommendations that were ultimately endorsed by the inquest jury were suggested by the Canadian Quad Council, which had standing at the inquest. That includes a recommendation that riders have a zero blood alcohol concentration.
The council represents ATV rider federations, which boast more than 100,000 riders as members across Canada. Its general manager, Wayne Daub, said the council was hoping to learn from the tragedy.
"We think that all riders should be trained, whether there's an incentive in order to allow that to happen or whether it's legislated by the government," Daub said.
The law in Ontario doesn't require any kind of mandatory training for youths using off-road vehicles, unlike in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
Each province has different rules that spell out how old you have to be to ride an ATV. In Ontario, children under 12 can operate an off-road vehicle if they're closely supervised by an adult or on land occupied by the machine's owner, the regulations say.
Only one province, Nova Scotia, requires mandatory training for adults, with some exceptions.
That means someone can buy an ATV today and go out and drive it tomorrow with no instruction in most of Canada.
"They don't let you drive anything else with an engine on it or a motor on it without getting training. Why are ATVs exempt?" Daub said.
Mandated training comes with challenges
The inquest jury recommended the design of "a mandatory standardized safety and training course for off-road vehicles" that includes "hands-on learning" to be approved by the federal and provincial governments.
Both youths and adults would have to complete it to receive an off-road vehicle permit, licence or certificate of competency.
Daub said mandatory training would be good because it would legally require operators to do it. But he questions whether it's feasible in less populated places, such as parts of northern Ontario.
"To have trainers in all of those places would become significantly more difficult to do," he said. "Not impossible, just significantly more difficult."
The Canadian Off-Highway Vehicle Distributors Council, which represents ATV manufacturers and distributors, agrees with the idea that all riders should have training, but doesn't support mandated training. The council also argues that geography would make that difficult to roll out.
"In many provincial jurisdictions across Canada, it would be almost physically impossible to have that available through certified instructors, chief instructors," council president Bob Ramsay said.
If governments don't go so far as to make training mandatory, the McLeods would like to see insurance companies offer discounts that would encourage training, similar to education courses for new drivers.
Fuselli, with injury prevention organization Parachute, said there isn't much evidence about whether ATV training reduces the possibility of a crash, and if so, what kind of training is best.
But she said there is some evidence that a graduated licensing system, which gradually introduces new drivers to skills and eases them into more challenging driving situations, has been effective in reducing motor vehicle crashes.
"In the absence of actual research evidence that shows training in ATVs is effective, we are translating that evidence around the graduated driver's licence to say, it's probably effective," Fuselli said.
What's at stake
Since the inquest ended in November, Daub from the Canadian Quad Council said he's had meetings with Ontario's Ministry of Transportation to discuss the recommendations.
"I'm optimistic that there will be change that will come from Ontario," Daub said.
"I'm not as optimistic that change will come from the federal government. The ATVs are really a hole. They don't really fit with Transport Canada because Transport Canada is on-road. They don't really fit with Infrastructure and they don't really fit with Tourism. They don't have a home at the federal government, some place to drive it."
Meredith and Chris McLeod are determined to see something good come out of the loss of Horatio. They plan to continue to work with Parachute to advocate for change and plan to write letters to local politicians.
They just have to look at the necklaces around their necks, with Horatio's fingerprint and signature stamped on them, to know what's at stake.
"We're forever changed," Meredith McLeod said.
"That's what's at stake, if the awareness isn't there before you turn on the engine."
With files from Kimberly Ivany and research from Cathy Ross