ATV injuries for youth 'alarmingly high,' top Maritime pediatricians say
All-terrain vehicle injuries top list of trauma-related admissions to pediatric intensive care unit
Leading pediatricians from across the Maritimes are calling on families to consider keeping their children and teenagers off all-terrain vehicles due to the severity and frequency of traumatic injuries last year.
An open letter signed by 15 doctors in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick said ATV injuries were the number one trauma-related reason for admission to the Maritime's only pediatric intensive care unit last year at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax.
"Both passengers and drivers, from babies to teens, required intensive care," the letter said, adding the figures do not include children who died before reaching the hospital.
"To our group of physicians providing care to the children and their parents, the numbers were alarmingly high."
Dr. Jennifer Foster, who works in pediatric critical care at the IWK and is a signatory of the letter, said it was typical in previous years for the pediatric intensive care unit — which serves all of the Maritimes — to see one ATV-related injury a year.
But by the fall of 2021, six young people had already been admitted to the unit over the previous 12 months.
"I realize that it doesn't sound like a huge number, but for those six children and those six families, it's everything. That's your whole world," Foster told CBC's Maritime Noon on Friday.
"As they stay in the ICU for a long period of time, we get to know them and their families, and we see the devastation that the families are going through and we experience that, in a way, with the families.
"We are feeling upset and emotional and frustrated."
Injuries were severe
The letter goes on to say that while driving ATVs are a favoured pastime for many Maritime families, their use by children and teens "is not safe."
"Each of the children admitted to the [pediatric intensive care unit] required life support. Their injuries were severe, the seriousness of which led to potential life-long complications and/or death," it said.
Foster said those can include brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, bruising to the lungs and massive injuries to the abdomen and heart.
"The majority of ATV incidents occur when the child rolls over," said Foster, who is also the pediatric medical lead for EHS LifeFlight.
"Children really don't have the ability to make snap decisions that we make when we're driving vehicles."
The letter is addressed to "parents, public and legislators," and was signed by a number of doctors from the IWK, as well as officials from the Miramichi Regional Hospital and Saint John Regional Hospital in New Brunswick.
Barry Barnet, executive director of the ATV Association of Nova Scotia, said he was surprised by the information in the letter because it does not reflect what he has heard anecdotally from within the membership over the past year.
However, he didn't dispute the information and said it should have been brought to their attention sooner. He wondered why the letter was not also sent to the group, which promotes the safe and responsible use of ATVs in the province.
"Our clubs and members are a group of volunteers that actively go out and support safe use of ATVs and help organize safety training and initiatives like that," said Barnet.
"We're doing the best we can, but we need all sides of this equation working together so that we can solve any issues."
Barnet said Nova Scotia is one of the most highly regulated jurisdictions in North America when it comes to off-highway vehicles, and he feels the provincial regulations do keep youth safe.
Doctors felt a duty
But he said the association has been pushing for increased enforcement on its trails.
"It would create better awareness of the rules," said Barnet.
"There are now significantly more ATV riders in the province and there are significantly less [off-highway vehicle] enforcement officers. And we really think that the equation has to match."
Foster said although she believes children younger than 16 should not be driving ATVs, she agrees that increased enforcement of the rules would provide "a modicum of safety."
But she said the group of doctors felt a duty to draw attention to the potential risks of young people driving ATVs.
"We just appeal to [those families] in the strongest way possible to be aware of the risks and to do it in as safe a way possible," said Foster.
Popularity of sport increasing
Barnet said there are an estimated 40,000 registered all-terrain vehicles in Nova Scotia, up from around 25,000 a decade ago, and the numbers are only expected to rise.
He encouraged all young ATV riders and their parents and guardians to follow the provincial regulations stringently.
"Parents should understand that ATVs are not a babysitting tool," he said.
"It's not wise to send your son or daughter out on an ATV and have them come back for supper without supervision and training. But we believe that parents, when given the opportunity to do the right thing, they will."
Nova Scotia regulations for ATV riders age 13 and younger include completing a safety course with both practical and theory components and driving a vehicle with an engine size that's appropriate for the rider's age.
They're also required to drive within sight of a parent or guardian at all times, are only allowed to drive on a closed course or private land, and must wear safety gear such as a helmet.
For teenagers age 14 and 15, many of the same rules apply, except those riders are allowed to drive anywhere their parent or guardian is, so long as they are always within sight.
A CBC News investigation in 2018 found that 178 people in Atlantic Canada were killed on ATVs or snowmobiles since 2012. It found that in most cases, victims were middle-aged men.
With files from Maritime Noon