Quads on the farm – a boon or a potential deadly trap?

One of the more controversial topics in agriculture is the use of ATVs – otherwise known as “Quad Bikes”.

Why are these controversial?

In a sense, no one disputes that an unacceptable number of people die each year in agricultural-related quad bike accidents.

At the time of writing, the final annual figures for 2014 are not yet available, but based on recent years, it is normally the case that around 20-30 people across the country are killed on these machines each year.

Most authorities recognize that they are the single largest single cause of agricultural fatalities.

So if no one can dispute those numbers, then why is there controversy?

The fact is that, on the one hand, many safety experts are highly critical of aspects of the design of these machines and see them as inherently dangerous. There are long-established concerns about their balance and center of gravity in situations such as on slopes or when hitting unexpected bumps or dips in the ground.

Others point out that many of them don’t have a cab and don’t have crumple zones or roll over bars.

The counter arguments are that no one requires motorcycles to have crumple zones and roll over bars. They also claim that there is much less media hysteria about the high rate of motorcycle accidents than there is about quad bikes.

Proponents of these machines, including the manufacturers, point out that many of these accidents and fatalities are the result of operator errors and operators not following associated safety guidelines and recommendations.

As a final note, those who think highly of on-farm ATVs are quick to point out that they have become virtually indispensable in some farming situations as a cost-effective method for farmers to get around their land.

What is reality?

The origin of quad bikes

It’s an incredible fact, but the first quad bike originated in Britain in the late 19th century.

However, in terms of the mass markets, they really start to become popular and available in numbers in the mid-1980s.

However, it is worth noting that these machines were originally designed for the military and later for aggressive leisure, racing and off-road work performed by highly experienced and well-trained riders. It is probably fair to say that they were never regarded as serious ‘workhorses’ in agriculture, in the same way as agricultural tractors.

However, it’s hard to argue that they’re more stable than a conventional motorcycle or dirt bike, so that begs the question of why the stats for serious injuries and fatalities tend to be higher, based on a percentage of use, than for two-wheeled bikes?

Many studies have looked at this area and reached different conclusions. Intuitively, however, it seems likely that the following factors are important:

  • Despite much safety education, many agricultural operators of ATVs continue to operate them without proper safety and other protective gear. This is a message learned long ago by most responsible motorcycle users.

  • The challenge of handling a quad bike, especially at high speed, on the very uneven and unpredictable surfaces encountered in farming, should not be underestimated. A significant number of injuries occur because the riders are inexperienced and insufficiently trained.

  • The fact that these vehicles were never designed with agricultural safety first in the minds of the engineers means that they are much less forgiving in accident situations than other types of agricultural vehicles.

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While there are some pleasing indications that accident statistics are starting to decline, they are still unacceptably high.

There seems to be room for the manufacturers to do much more to improve their safety, but also for the farming community to take the need to handle it with care and skill much more seriously. That last point reinforces the need to undergo thorough training before using them and most importantly to ensure that safety and protective equipment is used at all times.