Fatal fun

This story is part of a CBC News investigative series that examines ATV and snowmobile deaths throughout Atlantic Canada, a region that by some estimates takes in more than $800 million a year from the industries related to these vehicles. Look for more coverage in the coming weeks.

June McCullough pushes two dragonfly lawn ornaments into the ground on the shoulder of a dirt road in Shanklin, a 42-minute drive east of Saint John, N.B.  The new dragonflies join the flowers and butterflies already adorning a wooden white cross in the community not far from the Bay of Fundy.  A stranger made the cross and placed it here to mark the spot where McCullough’s 28-year-old daughter, Randa, died three years ago.

McCullough hung butterflies from the tree her daughter hit after catapulting off a four-wheeler.  Randa hit the tree and broke her neck.

Randa is just one of more than 178 people in Atlantic Canada who’ve been killed on ATVs or snowmobiles since 2012, a CBC News investigation has found.

It’s not clear how many people use these types of vehicles, but there are more than 360,000 of them registered in the four Atlantic provinces. Most riders use them recreationally.  CBC News analyzed the 178 deaths, collecting information from police, news clippings and obituaries and speaking with dozens of families.

It found that in most cases, victims were middle-aged men. About a quarter of the victims died in rollover crashes, and another quarter died the way Randa did: after crashing into a tree or other stationary object.

CBC’s investigation into ATV deaths was prompted by what seemed like a steady stream of police news releases announcing yet another death on a recreational vehicle.

The deaths continued after CBC completed its analysis of the 178 fatal accidents. A little more than a week ago, 13-year-old Marc-André Gionet suffered fatal injuries when he lost control of his ATV and crashed in a quarry near his home in Haut-Lamèque.

Usually, a crash makes news for a day or two. Then it fades, until someone else dies.

The CBC investigation aimed to go beyond the headlines and examine how, where and why people were dying this way.

The analysis showed that most fatal crashes occurred between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. More than half — 61 per cent — happened on weekends or holidays.  At least 41 per cent of crashes involved alcohol, though that is likely a low estimate.

Nobody, not even police, appears to be keeping track of how many people die impaired on off-road vehicles.  In some cases, police know whether alcohol was involved but might not reveal it “out of respect for the families of the deceased,” according to an RCMP spokesperson in Newfoundland and Labrador.

All-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles are both considered off-road or off-highway vehicles under provincial legislation.  The machines are treated differently from cars under the law, but they can go just as fast and provide significantly less protection to the operator.  The appeal of an ATV or snowmobile comes from getting to see parts of the province that would normally be hidden, riders say.

But ATVing and snowmobiling are more than just a pastime. They’re a way of life in Atlantic Canada, woven into the fabric of rural culture.  They’re also a business.  The New Brunswick government estimated that snowmobiling tourists spent more than $17.8 million while visiting in 2014-15. That’s just in one province.

The ATV industry contributed as much as $820 million to the Atlantic Canadian economy in 2015, taking into account jobs related to the sale of the machines and other services.  That’s according to an independent study commissioned by the Canadian Off-Highway Vehicle Distributors Council, which represents ATV manufacturers and dealers.

Each crash is different. The factors change and collide, and sometimes it’s hard to figure out exactly what went wrong.

But all have one thing in common: every victim left behind someone like June McCullough.

A call for safety training

Many of the people CBC News interviewed still have questions about how their friend or family member died. They don’t know why things went so wrong, so fast.

Some said their relative didn’t understand or underestimated the power of the machine. Others said the rider was new to the sport.

Many of those left behind want to see more done to prevent ATV-related deaths, so other people don’t have to endure the pain they’ve felt.

In New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador, there’s nothing preventing an adult with no experience or training from buying an ATV or snowmobile and going for a ride the next day.

In P.E.I., riding an off-highway vehicle safely is associated with having a driver’s licence. For adults there, a training course is only required for those who have had a driver’s licence for less than two years.

Only Nova Scotia requires adults to take a safety training course before going out on an off-road vehicle. The rule was grandfathered in and only applies to people born after April 1, 1987.

While there is no clear cause-and-effect relationship, the CBC News investigation found that Nova Scotia, which has a larger population than either New Brunswick or Newfoundland and Labrador, had a death rate of five per 100,000, whereas rates in New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador were eight and 11.5 per 100,000, respectively.

No other provinces in the region have moved to enact blanket mandatory training.

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