Riders question whether Alberta's new helmet law goes far enough

WATCH: Albertans who ride off-highway vehicles will soon have a new law to follow. Julia Wong explains.

Albertans using off-highway vehicles (OHV), such as quads, dirt bikes and side-by-sides, will have to wear helmets starting Monday, but some users say the new law isn’t wide-sweeping enough.

The law will require riders to wear helmets when riding on public land; those who don’t can be fined up to $155.

The law includes exemptions for those who ride on private property, on their own property, on First Nations lands and who ride a vehicle with rollover protective structures and seatbelts. Riders are also not required to wear a helmet if they are a member of the Sikh religion and wear a turban or if they are ranching or farming.

Ray Senio has been riding OHVs for approximately 40 years and riding a side-by-side for eight years. Senio has been wearing a helmet for the last 25 years.

“You can get injured really easy. If you hit a rock or a stick or a rut, you can tip over and get injured really badly,” he said.

Senio, who is also a captain with the Leduc Fire Department, said he has responded to some bad crashes.

“I’ve seen people tip over, roll over and get trapped. Luckily they had a helmet on because the machine landed on them and their head hit the ground,” he said.

Senio supports the new law, and though his side-by-side is exempt from the law because it has rollover protective structures, he still plans to wear a helmet and thinks everyone else should as well.

“I believe even with an exemption, you could hit a rock, a stick or a rut at any speed and tip over and land on your head. So I don’t believe there should be any exemptions.”

Willy Maess, the president of the Bruderheim Riding Association, has been riding ever since he was three years old; the 41-year-old has always worn a helmet.

“You’re hopping on a 400 pound machine. It’s best to have protection. My parents always instilled in me that it was important to wear a helmet,” he said.

Maess credits helmet with protecting him during some nasty crashes.

“I’ve been in a couple head-on collisions, in tight trails meeting another machine head-on, going over the handle bars and actually ramming head first into the other rider with our helmets on,” he said.

Like Senio, he thinks everyone should have to wear a helmet, even when farming and on private property.

“Even unloading a machine, I’ve seen people wipe out unloading a machine and cause damage and the machine lands right on top of you,” he said.

“Ultimately it is their choice, it’s private property. But it’s just something you have to think about – you’re putting your own livelihood in jeopardy.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation said the province consulted with stakeholders to find the “right balance” for legislation.

“The Government of Alberta has a responsibility to ensure safety on lands under their care, namely, public land. That means that on private property and First Nations and Metis Settlement land, we hope that people will make a choice that best benefits their safety. The same goes for farm and ranch work – safety should be a top priority,” said spokesperson Aileen Machell.

Machell also said the province consulted with the Sikh community.

“Those conversations led to this exemption, which respects the religious practices of those involved. Nonetheless, during those same conversations, we insisted that, wherever possible, those enjoying the use of OHVs wear a helmet and take other safety precautions.”

Don Voaklander, the director of the Injury Prevention Centre at the University of Alberta, said the province sees approximately 16 deaths every year from people riding OHVs. He said there are roughly 600 hospitalizations and 5,000 emergency department visits.

“We see a fair amount of upper and lower extremity injuries, a fair amount of head injuries, some fairly serious ones,” he said.

Voaklander said half of the deaths are due to rollovers or people flying off the OHVs and hitting an object, like a rock or a tree. In the majority of cases, those riders were not wearing helmets.

“We know from our death records only about 30 per cent of the people that do die are wearing helmets,” he said.

Voaklander is hopeful the law will change behaviour, and he expects the law will save a handful of lives every year.

“I think people underestimate the risk,” he said.

“I think they look at an ATV, it’s got big spongy tires, and it’s got four wheels. But really they’re quite high-centered. If you put some equipment or carry some gear, that even makes them… less stable, so I think people have to have some caution in approaching these things.”

Voaklander also recommends staying away from alcohol when driving an OHV as well as wearing good gear, sturdy boots and gloves.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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