At least 111 Atlantic Canadians died on ATVs, snowmobiles since 2018
Family, RCMP say public not aware how dangerous riding can be
The doorbell rang at Brian and Michelle Valardo's west Saint John home around 12:30 a.m. on a February night in 2020.
It was the night their lives would change forever, as a police officer told Brian that his older brother, Pat — his best friend, business partner and protector — had gone on his ATV into frigid open water on the Kennebecasis River.
Brian and Michelle rushed to the hospital, but 58-year-old Pat didn't make it.
He was an uncle to Brian and Michelle's two girls and a well-known local businessman who, along with Brian, owned a popular pub. His friends and family members have remembered him for his wit and generosity.
"The pain today is probably still as great as it was a year ago," Brian said.
"These things take probably a long, long time to overcome, to some degree … obviously you never get over it. It certainly changes life in so many ways."
Pat Valardo is one of at least 111 people who have lost their lives on ATVs or snowmobiles in the Atlantic region since 2018, a CBC News investigation has found.
They've left behind 111 families, who, like Brian and Michelle Valardo, are left with a void that will never be filled.
New Brunswick saw the most deaths during that time span, with 47 people losing their lives, followed by 38 people in Newfoundland and Labrador. Twenty-two people died in Nova Scotia and four in Prince Edward Island.
CBC News has data on ATV and snowmobile deaths going back to 2012 and has previously analyzed the factors involved in ATV and snowmobile deaths in the region between 2012 and 2018.
Last year marked the highest number of ATV and snowmobile fatalities in the Atlantic region in all of those years. At least 42 people died in the four provinces in 2020, including Pat Valardo.
Using data from police and media reports, CBC News tried to establish what happened in each crash that claimed a life.
In nearly one-third of those cases, the rider lost control of the machine and either went off course, rolled over or flipped, or the victim was thrown or fell off the machine, the data shows.
In 18 instances, the rider hit a non-moving object, such as a pole or a fence, while riders in 15 cases hit a moving object, such as another off-road vehicle, an animal or a motor vehicle.
In some cases, CBC News was unable to establish what happened because there isn't enough information available.
Ice water rescue gear should be mandatory, family says
Ten of the people who died on ATVs and snowmobiles, including Pat Valardo, went into open water or through ice.
A little more than two hours before the doorbell rang at Brian and Michelle Valardo's home, Brian was texting back and forth with his brother.
When Pat told him that he and a friend were out for a night ride on the ice, Brian was concerned.
"I said, 'What the heck are you doing that for?'" Brian remembered.
Pat assured his younger brother that it was fine, and they were only five minutes away from his friend's home. Brian told him to be careful.
When Brian and Michelle met Pat's friend at the hospital, he told them that Pat was riding ahead of him and drove into an unexpected spot of open water. The friend went into the water as well, but was able to get out and call 911. The dispatcher used GPS to determine their location on the river, near Minister's Face.
"The Kennebecasis River, from what we've learned, it's a tidal river," Michelle said.
"So the tide goes in and out every day and this causes the water to push against the ice, and pieces of the ice can break away. Therefore, it's very dangerous and you could be driving along on ice one minute, and two hours later, it's open water."
Pat was wearing typical ATV safety gear that day, including a helmet and tall boots. But he didn't have a floatation suit or ice picks, gear his family believes could have helped him survive in the water.
They would like to see new rules that make it mandatory to have ice water rescue safety gear for riders planning to go on the ice, and question whether riders should even be allowed on the ice at night.
More awareness needed
They would like to see more education and more awareness of the potential dangers that come with off-road vehicles.
"I would just say to never [overestimate] your experience, no matter how great your skill level might be, and to never underestimate nature and the weather and how fast it can change," Michelle said.
Nova Scotia is the only Atlantic province that requires adults to take mandatory training before driving an off-road vehicle, and even then there are some exemptions.
Of the four Atlantic provinces, Nova Scotia recorded the lowest ATV and snowmobile death rate, at 2.38 per 100,000, since 2018, according to CBC's analysis.
Rollover-related injuries a risk for inexperienced riders
The three remaining Atlantic provinces allow adults to go out and buy ATVs and use them without any formal instruction on the machines.
"When it comes to an all-terrain vehicle, basically you register the vehicle, put some insurance on it, and you're pretty much good to go," Brian Valardo said.
For people who are new to ATVing, rollover-related injuries are a big concern, according to Dr. Richard Louis, an injury prevention specialist with Trauma NB, the province's lead injury prevention agency.
Rollovers can happen when riders take a turn too briskly, Louis said.
"It's really important to take those safety courses or at least to take your time when first riding those type of heavy machines," Louis said.
"Because obviously ... the consequences of risky behaviour doesn't fall just on the rider. It also has an impact on the family and friends and the rest of the community."
N.L. saw surge in off-road fatalities
While New Brunswick has seen the most ATV and snowmobile fatalities since 2018, Newfoundland and Labrador had the highest fatality rate after adjusting for population, with 7.31 deaths per 100,000, compared to 6.29 deaths per 100,000 for New Brunswick.
It reached a peak in 2020, when 16 people died on ATVs or snowmobiles in Newfoundland and Labrador.
"That number is higher than previous years and it's certainly alarming," RCMP Cpl. Jolene Garland said in a February 2021 interview.
The surge in deaths prompted the Newfoundland and Labrador RCMP to create a public awareness campaign.
It has seen the Mounties step up enforcement on trails, but also to try to appeal to people's hearts. They've aired messages on their social media channels and the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation took out billboards to help get the messages across.
"We're calling on people to think about those that are left behind," Garland said.
"If something tragic were to happen to you, well, what about your loved ones and how will this affect them? So some simple, good quality visuals with some direct messages. We're hoping that this will reach people on a different level."
The Newfoundland and Labrador RCMP also remind the public to wear helmets while using off-road vehicles, hoping the information will encourage others to make different choices. Thirteen of the 16 people who died in 2020 weren't wearing helmets or were wearing helmets improperly, and 11 of the 16 riders were impaired, according to Garland.
"It's never about rubbing the salt in the wounds of a family member or the, 'I told you so' or anything of that nature," she said.
"We just hope that by communicating what happened to one individual, we could prevent it in some way from happening to others."
Unclear what changes government will make
It will take months to see whether the campaign has helped reduce the number of deaths, according to Garland. The first phase of the campaign ended in March, but the second phase, timed to begin before the May long weekend, will focus on what ATV operators are doing right.
There have been two publicly-reported ATV fatalities in Newfoundland and Labrador so far in 2021 — one case where the victim's machine went over an embankment and into a lake, and another where a pedestrian was struck by an ATV that fled the scene, according to news releases from the RCMP.
The Newfoundland and Labrador government recently finished a review into ATV and snowmobile regulations that's been going on since 2018, and is now consulting stakeholders on potential legislative changes.
The province is the only one in Atlantic Canada that doesn't mandate safety training for young people. Helmets aren't required by law to be worn on snowmobiles and side-by-sides.
Sarah Stoodley, the minister of digital government and Service NL, admits the province's rules are "outdated," but won't say yet what new legislation might look like.
"Having such high numbers of people who lost their lives and involved in accidents of ATVs and snowmobiles … it's horrific to think about and it does put a sense of urgency on any changes that we do have to make," Stoodley said.
Holding on to memories
Back in Saint John, Brian and Michelle Valardo treasure the memories of Pat throughout their home. His favourite shirt, which they made into a pillow. Handwritten cards Pat wrote as a boy. His final message on their answering machine.
The brothers were two and a half years apart, but Pat and Brian were inseparable. It was always Pat and Brian, but now it's just Brian.
When they hear Pat was one of at least 111 lives lost across the region, the couple describe the figure as heartbreaking.
"It's one life gone, but it affects several lives, in so many different ways," Michelle said.
With research from Cathy Ross