Four-wheeled risk: CIHI data shows ATV injuries continue to rise

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They’re fast and fun, but there’s a flip side to four-wheelers.

Our data shows that the number of serious injuries involving all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) is growing faster than that for any other major type of wheel- or water-based activity.

In 2009–2010, there were nearly 3,400 hospitalizations for ATV injuries across Canada—a 31% increase since 2001–2002.

That doesn’t include people who were injured and treated at a walk-in clinic, an emergency department or by their family doctor or those who died of their injuries at the scene.

Almost every jurisdiction has seen injuries rise. Hospitalizations in Alberta rose from 576 in 2001 to 868 in 2009, while in British Columbia, ATV-related admissions increased from 213 to 493 over the same period.

“Those two provinces are really driving the increase up quite a bit,” says Patricia Sidhom, CIHI’s Primary Health Care Information and Clinical Registries program lead.

The greatest number of injuries was among young men age 15 to 19.

“The minimum age and safety training for ATV use vary from province to province. In some cases, children and teens who are too young for a driver’s licence are allowed to drive an ATV,” Sidhom explains.

Increased injuries may be due to the fact that more people are using ATVs. But their popularity among young people, particularly young men, may also be a factor.

Dr. Natalie Yanchar says that in addition to their lack of size and strength to use these heavy machines, kids are risk-takers and can lack judgment. They don’t perceive danger the way adults do, including speed, approaching vehicles, rocky ledges or sharp inclines.

“Their brains need time to develop and to develop those reactive and protective cognitive mechanisms,” says the medical director of trauma care at Halifax’s IWK Health Centre. “That comes with age and life experience.”

For older youth and adults, alcohol or drugs mixed with large and fast ATVs can be a disastrous and fatal combination.

At the IWK, the Maritime’s level I pediatric trauma centre, the most common ATV-related injuries are broken arms and legs. More serious injuries include fractured livers and spleens, bruised and collapsed lungs, and spinal cord injuries—the result of being thrown, crushed or pinned by the machine.

“The worst ones are severe brain injuries,” Yanchar says. “Helmets will reduce the risk, but not by 100%.”

According to Statistics Canada, there were 187 ATV-related deaths in 2007 (up from 142 in 2000). Among them were 18 children between the ages of 1 and 14.

“That shouldn’t happen,” Yanchar says. “That’s more than half a classroom.”

The past 30 years have seen new legislation and messages about ATVs’ ability to flip, the dangers of drinking and driving, and the fact that kids don’t belong on them.

In that time, cars and roads have become safer, with fewer motor vehicle collision hospitalizations and deaths, despite an increase in traffic on Canadian streets and highways. Yanchar wants to see a similar ATV culture change. If ATVs are here to stay, and the ongoing rise in injuries reflects their inherent hazardous risk, she says that measures should be taken to reduce those risks, including changes in vehicle design, speed and a ban on accessories that promote carrying passengers, which destabilize the machines.