Nfld. & Labrador

3 years after daughter's death, Bonavista mom disappointed ATV legislation remains unchanged

Long-discussed changes to ATV legislation still haven't happened, despite the insistence of the child death review committee, and the mother of a girl killed in a crash.

Advocates, child death review committee continue to call for updated legislation

Sherrie Dunn is pictured with her daughters Erica, left, and Heidi, shortly before Heidi was killed in a crash in 2017. (Submitted)

Three years after the death of a child in Bonavista prompted calls for change, it is still legal for children as young as 12 to drive side-by-sides without helmets or seatbelts in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The RCMP launched a new enforcement and education campaign Monday, which served as a reminder that despite assurances from various ministers past and present, the provincial government has still not updated its ATV and snowmobile legislation.

The ability to hop on a snowmobile or a side-by-side — also known as a utility terrain vehicle, or UTV — without a helmet, as well as the fines for breaking the act remain too low for advocates to accept.

Sherrie Dunn lost her 13-year-old daughter, Heidi, in that Bonavista crash. Heidi wasn't wearing a helmet when the side-by-side she was driving tipped over. In the years since, her mother has turned her grief into advocacy, and has been disappointed so far.

"What is it going to take to get them to change those rules?" Dunn said Thursday. 

"It makes me mad and sad, because like I said, I know what those parents feel like and it can be prevented."

The Motorized Snow Vehicles and All-Terrain Vehicles Act was first introduced in 1996 and has undergone several changes since then. None of them include adaptations for side-by-side vehicles, which have risen in popularity in recent years.

The act defines an ATV as a vehicle that a rider sits astride, with one leg on either side. Since that doesn't include side-by-sides, where the driver sits behind a steering wheel akin to a car, they fall under a different set of rules than ATVs.

While a driver must be 16 to operate a full-sized ATV, the minimum age for a side-by-side is 12 as long as the driver is supervised by someone 16 or older.

It is not mandatory to wear a helmet or wear a seatbelt in a side-by-side in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

In Heidi's case, she did not have the supervision of a 16-year-old, a fact that earned the owner of the side-by-side a $200 fine — the maximum amount for a first-time offence under the current legislation, including cases that result in death.

After Heidi died, the province's child death review committee recommended the province close loopholes for side-by-sides, make helmets mandatory and increase the maximum fine.

The committee issued the same recommendations after another child died last winter.

The provincial government has said on several occasions that changes to legislation are coming — including an assertion by Digital Government and Service NL Minister Sarah Stoodley that changes were coming this fall — but it has yet to be tabled in the House of Assembly.

Stoodley declined an interview for this story. In an emailed statement, the department said a review of the legislation is finished, and several potential changes are on the table.

"These included training requirements for off-road vehicles; age of operation for vehicles such as side-by-sides; operation of vehicles on municipal roadways; and body size requirements for safe operation," the statement said.

"Recommendations to enhance safety are being developed for consideration by government in the near future."

Don't 'hide behind the law,' says safety advocate

ATV safety advocate Rick Noseworthy, head of the Newfoundland T'Railway Council, has also been calling for changes for several years. In the absence of change, he doesn't understand why more people aren't taking their safety seriously.

"Just because it's not the law on a side-by-side doesn't mean you shouldn't wear [a helmet]," he said. "I don't want to make light of it, but it's not against the law to put a cape on and get up on the roof of your house and jump off to see if you can fly. But people don't do it because it's common sense.

"To hide behind the law and not wear a helmet on a side-by-side because it's not the law, that's no excuse.… [There is] no reason in the world why these helmets shouldn't be worn."

Provincial regulations don't say riders must wear helmets on ATVs or side-by-sides, but Rick Noseworthy says everyone should anyway. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

According to the RCMP, 15 people have died on recreational vehicles so far in 2020.

Of those deaths, a 24-year-old woman was killed when the side-by-side she was driving rolled over. She wasn't wearing a helmet.

Three people were killed on snowmobiles. Two of them were not wearing helmets, while the other is believed to have been wearing one unbuckled.

None of those people were legally required to wear helmets.

Dunn follows the news and takes note of recreational vehicle deaths. She shudders when she sees people driving on roads, or without helmets. 

Three years after her daughter died, Dunn still has the same message to the provincial government.

"Please, take this much more seriously. Sit down and put yourself [in my position]. Call me. I can tell you what I go through every day."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


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