Nfld. & Labrador·Fatal Fun

Mother of 13-year-old killed in rollover wants legal loopholes for side-by-sides closed

Children as young as 12 are allowed to drive side-by-sides without using helmets or seatbelts in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Children as young as 12 allowed to drive UTVs with no helmets or seatbelts in N.L.

Sherrie Dunn with her daughters Erica, left, and Heidi, right, shortly before Heidi was killed in a tragic crash. (Submitted)

More than a year after her 13-year-old daughter was killed in a tragic crash, Sherrie Dunn still feels like no justice was served.

The RCMP says the owner of the side-by-side her daughter was driving was ticketed — for a penalty that carried a maximum fine of $200.

But today, the rules remain the same. CBC News has learned a gap in the province's all-terrain vehicle legislation allows children as young as 12 years old to operate side-by-sides — also known as utility terrain vehicles, or UTVS — without a helmet or seatbelt.

The grieving mother says she believes her daughter's death should have been the catalyst to strengthen those laws.

"It is a ticket for death," she said. 

"Would you let your 12 or 13 year old jump aboard your car or your truck and drive off? No, you wouldn't."

In August, a report by the Child Death Review Committee laid out recommendations to close loopholes for side-by-side vehicles.

The provincial government recently said that work is underway.

The crash

Heidi Dunn was on her way to feed horses in Bonavista in July 2017, when she jumped aboard a side-by-side belonging to her friend's parents.

The group of three children — all aged 13 — set off in the vehicle with Heidi behind the wheel. To her family's knowledge, she had little or no experience driving ATVs or UTVs before that day.

Pictures on the wall and a room full of belongings are all that Sherrie Dunn has left of her daughter, Heidi, after an ATV crash last year. (Submitted)

Less than an hour after she left the house, the vehicle tipped over. Heidi was not wearing a helmet or a seatbelt. 

"It was all head injury," her mother said. 

"I've never read the police report. Which I will never read. I have no interest. I don't want to know the gruesome details."

Laws make no mention of side-by-sides

CBC News contacted Service NL, the department responsible for the legislation, to clarify the rules in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Motorized Snow Vehicles and All-Terrain Vehicles Act states that nobody under the age of 16 can drive an ATV, and all riders must wear helmets.

The growing popularity of the side-by-side model of UTV poses a problem for Newfoundland and Labrador, where no laws explicitly cover the machines. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

However, an ATV is defined as a "vehicle designed to be operated with the driver seated astride a seat," meaning one leg on either side.

The definitions were last updated in 2005, when the modern versions of side-by-sides — with seats next to one another — were only just beginning to exist.

Since the definitions don't fit a side-by-side, the rules for ATVs do not apply to those machines.

 I never expected to get the call saying my sister is dead.- Erica Dunn

As a result, the mandatory age limit falls to a default number set out in the legislation for vehicles that do not match the description of an ATV or snowmobile.

That age limit is 12, as long as there is supervision from someone who is at least 16 years old.

The maximum fine set out in the legislation is $200 for a first-time offence, and $500 for each subsequent offence.

In August, Newfoundland and Labrador's Child Death Review Committee recommended a review of the current Motorized Snow Vehicles and All-Terrain Vehicles Act and Regulations.

The committee said the act and regulations should be reviewed to include the operation of side-by-side vehicles.

Two weeks ago, Service NL Minister Sherry Gambin-Walsh said the province is working on it.

"There's a process that has to happen inside of government. You have to go to committee, go to cabinet, and then go into the House of Assembly to change legislation," she said at the time.

"The legislation that's going through right now has gone through the process, and so we'll start to work on the legislation for the spring sitting, to get that ready now."

Raising the minimum age for people riding recreational vehicles is part of the changes being considered, Gambin-Walsh indicated.

A voice silenced young

Erica Dunn, a Grade 12 student at Discovery Collegiate, is left to sing songs without her sister.

The musical duo were well-known in Bonavista as young girls with matching smiles and harmonious voices. They always knew what the other was thinking, both in and out of music.

Erica Dunn doesn't sing with anyone else anymore. She made a name for herself alongside her younger sister, Heidi, as a duo. Since her sister's death, she hasn't tried to find another partner. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

Erica says she'll never sing with anyone else again.

"I woke up that morning [thinking], 'It's going to be a great day,'" she recalled.

"We were supposed to practice. I never expected to get the call saying my sister is dead."

She looks to the room down the hall with the door closed. Inside, Heidi's bed is still made. All her possessions are still just as she left them — her cadet uniform, her hockey jersey, her paintings hung on the wall.

"That seems so bad, like it's such a thing to hoard," said Erica. "But how can you throw something away like that?"

Nobody wants to pick out a casket for their child.- Sherrie Dunn

Sometimes, she catches herself waiting for her sister to come through the door.

"It sounds childish and like I'm trying to get away from it, but it's so true," she said.

"But then you're waiting and you're waiting, and you realize she's never going to come home."

Lessons learned, too late

Sherrie Dunn will live the rest of her life with a broken heart and a warning for all other parents.

"Take it from me, nobody wants to get that call. Nobody wants to go pick out a casket for their child," she said.

She cringes every time she hears the roar of an ATV engine passing her house on a main street through Bonavista.

Dunn wells up when she catches a random reminder of her daughter — her favourite breakfast food, the colour red, or a rainbow.

Sherrie Dunn was devastated to lose her daughter in a side-by-side crash. Now, she wants regulations to change. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

She wants the laws to change — mandatory age limits, as well as seatbelts and helmets for all riders of side-by-sides would be a start. Ideally, she'd like to see drivers require a licence to operate them.

As for the government's promise to make recreational vehicles safer, Sherrie Dunn says she believes the clock is ticking.

"It's a promise they should keep, and sooner [rather] than later. If it's later, God knows how many children or adults could be injured or killed," she said.

"It needs to be done now."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ryan Cooke is a journalist in St. John's.

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