CBC Investigates

The 'tragic hole' one man's ATV death left in a Nova Scotia family

Roger Burns is one of 178 people to have died on an ATV or snowmobile in Atlantic Canada since 2012. He was killed just metres from his home.

CBC investigation provides accounting of ATV deaths in Atlantic Canada and what factors led to them

Roger Burns is one of 178 victims that CBC News identified as part of its investigation into ATV and snowmobile deaths. (Jack Julian/CBC)

Rosemary Burns of Enfield, N.S., never thought her family would be harmed by an all-terrain vehicle.

"It's sort of a difficult thing to try and comprehend that an accident like this could happen," she said.

On Aug. 23, 2012, Rosemary's husband, Roger Burns, died on his family's four-wheeler just a few metres from their home. The accident happened during a gathering for his seven-year-old daughter's soccer team.

(CBC News)

Burns is one of 178 people a CBC News investigation has identified as dying on an ATV or snowmobile in Atlantic Canada since 2012.

Each accident left devastation in its wake.

"It definitely left a tragic hole in our family and we are just trying to survive every day, and to find our way through life without him," Rosemary Burns said.

CBC News combined hundreds of police reports, news articles and obituaries to build a computerized list of deaths, and factors that contributed to them.

Of 178 victims, 154 of them, like Roger Burns, were male. Sixteen were female. In eight cases, information on the gender was unclear.

Fatal Fun: How Atlantic Canadians are dying on recreational vehicles

Thirteen children and teenagers died, but the death count spikes after age 20, It rises slowly to a peak between ages 40 and 60.

Roger Burns was 51 when he died.

'It all happened within four-to-five seconds'

The afternoon of the accident, Burns had taken members of his daughter's soccer team on a ride in the family's boat, which was moored at a dock at the foot of their property at Grand Lake in Enfield, 25 minutes north of Halifax.

Burns often used the ATV and a small trailer to bring life-jackets and wet towels back to the house, a 70-metre trip up the lawn to the home's driveway.

The accident happened just a few metres from the family's home. (Jack Julian/CBC)

The day of the party, Roger Burns gave a ride to two guests. A seven-year-old rode in the wagon and an 11-year-old sat in front of Burns on the ATV.

The ride ended in the family's driveway, where Roger Burns sat on the machine with his arms crossed chatting with another parent.

"Suddenly the 4-wheeler just took off at high speed. And it went around the house and down over the little hill towards the lake and it hit a little tree," Rosemary Burns said.

According to Rosemary, the child sitting in front of Roger Burns had pressed the throttle on the machine's handlebars.

Suddenly the 4-wheeler just took off at high speed.- Rosemary Burns, Roger's wife

"It scared him and, you know, it just took off. And he just pushed harder because he was trying to hold on," Burns said.

Police told Rosemary Burns that her husband tried to brake, but couldn't.

The medical examiner told Burns her husband died instantly when his head struck the tree.

Rosemary Burns was told her husband died instantly when his head struck the tree. (Jack Julian/CBC)

The younger boy was unharmed. The older one broke his ankle.

Rosemary Burns says she shielded her husband's body with her own so her children wouldn't see their father's injuries.

"It all happened within four-to-five seconds," she said.

Contributing factors

The CBC investigation found several factors strongly associated with fatal ATV and snowmobile crashes.

In 21 per cent of cases, victims weren't wearing a helmet.

Roger Burns always wore a helmet when riding on trails, but not doing chores at home.

Roger Burns, far right, was 51 when he died. (Jack Julian/CBC)

"We didn't really think it was really necessary to wear a helmet because we were on our property and Roger was driving. So we didn't really think that anything could happen," Rosemary Burns said.

The medical director of Trauma Nova Scotia with the province's health authority said wearing a helmet on snowmobiles and ATVs is essential.

"One of the No. 1 causes of mortality in these patients is traumatic brain injury," Dr. Rob Green said.

Helmet use is really the only thing that protects you ...- Dr. Rob Green,  Trauma Nova Scotia program

"It kills people at the scene. Or it kills them in the hospital. And even if it doesn't kill them, they have lifelong effects.

"Helmet use is really the only thing that protects you from that.  And it's not 100 per cent, but it's as good as we have right now."

ATV'ing and snowmobiling is a way of life throughout Atlantic Canada. (Trevor Lyons/CBC)

Police determined that alcohol was not a factor in the accident that killed Roger Burns. But drug or alcohol intoxication is a frequent factor in ATV and snowmobile deaths.

Alcohol and drugs were suspected or confirmed in 44 per cent of fatalities across the region.

In Nova Scotia the figure was 51 per cent. That included five Nova Scotia riders who tested positive for drugs such as marijuana and cocaine, out of six cases of drug intoxication for all of Atlantic Canada. 

Dr. Rob Green with Trauma Nova Scotia says most patients in ATV and snowmobile accidents die as a result of a traumatic brain injury. (Submitted)

New Brunswick was the province with the highest intoxication rate with nearly 59 per cent of deaths involving alcohol.

The majority of accidents happen on weekends and holidays, and after 6 p.m.

This doesn't surprise Green.

"If I get a call at 2 in the morning … of an ATV, I'll assume that they're actually intoxicated," he said.

Green said the pain felt by the families of the victims is shared by all who care for them.

"Immense grief, immense concern," he said.

New Brunswick saw 64 deaths while Newfoundland and Labrador saw 61.

But because Newfoundland and Labrador's population is roughly 30 per cent smaller, the death rate there since 2012 was 11.5 people per 100,000 population.

That's more than double Nova Scotia's rate, where 47 people died in the largest Atlantic Canadian province.

Prince Edward Island saw six deaths in that time, four on ATVs and two on snowmobiles.

Snowmobiles vs. ATVs

Across the region, ATV deaths outnumber those on snowmobiles 113 to 62.  In three accidents CBC couldn't determine what kind of vehicle was involved.

There was a wide variation in these numbers province to province.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, 61 deaths were nearly evenly split between ATVs and snowmobiles. In Nova Scotia, only seven out of 47 deaths involved snowmobiles.

CBC attempted to quantify the types of fatal accidents. The information came mostly from media reports and interviews with victims' friends and family.

CBC tried to contact a person familiar with each case. Those inquiries concluded roughly a quarter involved striking an obstacle on a road or trail, such as trees, rocks, embankments, poles or buildings.

As risky as cars

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, says ATVs are just as risky as cars, but people fail to see them that way.

He wants that to change.

"We have a collectively casual societal approach," said Strang. "We know that people are much more likely to consume alcohol and get on an ATV or a snowmobile and they wouldn't do that in a car."

The first step in tackling the problem, said Strang, is talking with ATV users and groups about why this casual culture exists.

He also wants more research done on how many people have not only been killed on ATVs or snowmobiles, but been injured.

"We have to remember that deaths are only the tip of the iceberg," he said.

About the Author

Jack Julian


Jack Julian joined CBC Nova Scotia as an arts reporter in 1997. His news career began on the morning of Sept. 3, 1998 following the crash of Swissair 111. He is now a data journalist in Halifax, and you can reach him at (902) 456-9180, by email at jack.julian@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter @jackjulian

Additional research by CBC reference librarians Cathy Ross and Diana Redegeld