As eyewitness relives fatal crash, minister promises ATV, recreational vehicle rule changes are imminent

·4 min read
Doug Kavanagh witnessed last Saturday's fatal crash between a dirt bike and a motorcycle on Pitts Memorial Drive. People crossing the highway on off-road vehicles is a constant problem, he says, and one that needs to end. (Gavin Simms/CBC - image credit)
Doug Kavanagh witnessed last Saturday's fatal crash between a dirt bike and a motorcycle on Pitts Memorial Drive. People crossing the highway on off-road vehicles is a constant problem, he says, and one that needs to end. (Gavin Simms/CBC - image credit)

Increasing recreational vehicle incidents and fatalities in Newfoundland and Labrador are being met with similarly escalating condemnation, as the provincial government promises beefed-up legislation to deal with the problem is on its way.

As of Tuesday, six people have died in ATV crashes in the province in 2021. That doesn't include deaths involving other off-road vehicles, like last Saturday's crash between a dirt bike and a motorcycle on Pitts Memorial Drive in St. John's that killed the motorcyclist.

Passing motorists Doug Kavanagh and his wife watched that last accident unfold before their eyes, and said the teenager on the dirt bike was crossing the highway at the time.

"That man, he died right in front of us, and it needs to be told that that was totally preventable. There is no need for this to happen. Absolutely not," Kavanagh said.

Kavanagh called 911, and said he saw two children flee the scene with an ATV. They're not the first kids to use the highway, he said — it's been happening for years.

"I've never had an incident, but you know, when you see it happen right in front of you and you see the results — it hits home, right? You just say, this got to stop," he said.

Shutterstock / NickNack Ratchaph
Shutterstock / NickNack Ratchaph

On the heels of Saturday's crash, an ATV and a car collided head-on near Paddy's Pond on Tuesday, killing the ATV driver.

The fatalities are more than frustrating to Darren Dunphy, who called the issue of ATVs using roadways "rampant."

"One time, people would be reluctant to go along a highway on an ATV. But now it seems, 'oh it's my right and I will do it, and I don't have to worry about any fallout from it,'" said Dunphy, the supervising chief instructor with non-profit organization Safety N.L.

Dunphy pointed to the mounting deaths — there were 17 ATV-related deaths in 2020, 12 the year before — as evidence of a problem he said is touching every part of the province.

Despite the federal and municipal election campaigns, "I haven't heard a politician speak about it," he said, adding the inaction stands in contrast to pandemic public health measures.

"In this province, ATVs and off-road vehicles are killing more people than COVID," he said.

"So if you're acting that way for a COVID response, and you know people are dying on these machines, well — there should be an equal response."

Ted Dillon/CBC
Ted Dillon/CBC

Rules coming as early as October

On Friday, the provincial government promised change, and soon.

"We will be bringing forward recommendations at this fall sitting in the House of Assembly," said Sarah Stoodley, the minister of the Department of Digital Government and Service N.L.

"So in a few weeks' time, we will see new legislation and regulations for ATV and snowmobile safety."

The House of Assembly opens on Oct. 18. Stoodley wouldn't outline the exact changes before the legislation is tabled, but said they "absolutely" involve age restrictions, as well as rules around side-by-sides.

"Supervision is a big one," she said.

Currently under the Motorized Snow Vehicles and All-Terrain Vehicles Act, no one under 14 years old can operate an ATV of any size, with size restrictions on those under 16 years of age. Children as young as 12 can drive side-by-sides, without seatbelts and helmets.

The proposed changes will also streamline rules "to make it clear for people to get a handle on," she said, and financial penalties. But that's not the only change that needs to happen.

"I think it's a culture change, that we just have to think about safety over pleasure, " said Stoodley.

CBC
CBC

Enforcement challenges

Creating rules is one thing. Enforcing them is another.

"If you speak with any law enforcement agency throughout this province, certainly, everyone will tell you they don't have the resources to get on top of it," said Dunphy

RCMP have stepped up their efforts, launching a safety education campaign at the tail end of 2020 and boosting policing in May.

But Dunphy said it's tough to catch deliquent drivers, who can speed away into the forest where no squad car or police pick-up truck can go.

"The population knows this, and law enforcement officers more or less throw their hands in the air," he said.

Dunphy said many of those driving ATVs on roadways are young people, and parents will have to do their part.

"They'll drive the roadways like its their own personal highway, with no respect, no consideration for other users. So it's gonna have to come down to the parents themselves," he said.

RCMP ticketed a parent and 15-year-old youth on Sept. 11 after the teenager was driving a side-by-side unsupervised, and crashed into another ATV. On Thursday, police said they fined the parent of a 13-year-old after the teenager was involved in an ATV crash in Clarke's Beach in August

Stoodley said while the new rules may strengthen fines around ATV supervision, enforcement remains a challenge.

"There's no easy answer here," she said.

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