The ATV gong show

When Alberta Transportation announced in 2008 that it would look into imposing tougher regulations for off-road vehicles, I naively thought I’d never need to write another word about the Kamikaze 500s etc.

A load of muddy ATVs in Caroline after a rip-roaring May long weekend. Precious West-Country topsoil cakes the vehicles.

A load of muddy ATVs in Caroline after a rip-roaring May long weekend. Precious West-Country topsoil cakes the vehicles.

When Alberta Transportation announced in 2008 that it would look into imposing tougher regulations for off-road vehicles, I naively thought I’d never need to write another word about the Kamikaze 500s etc.

But nothing has happened, except that the ATVs steadily multiply and the situation worsens to the extent that private landowners, and other users of public land, are starting to mobilize, not to say revolt. Latest manifestation is West Central Alberta Stakeholders taking out large ads in Red Deer Life and Central Alberta Life before the recent Canada Day weekend and printing 2,500 brochures, all promoting the message “Using the West Country is a Privilege, Not a Right.”

Then I had a personal wake-up call and déjà vu moment all over again. I was travelling a muddy West Country side road, looking for a turn-off, when a helmet-less little kid on a huge ATV suddenly zoomed out of a farm driveway and crossed right in front of me, missing my vehicle by inches.

Half a dozen years earlier, the same thing happened on a paved side road east of Red Deer.

Fortunately, I have a policy of never exceeding 80 km/h in deer and moose country; now I add dumb kids on ATVs with stupider parents to those hazards.

So far this year, two teenagers have died in Alberta as a result of ATV “accidents,” including a 15 –year-old boy who rode his quad over a highway near Barrhead and was struck by a semi.

Dr. Richard Buckley, a traumatic surgeon, blames most of Alberta’s 79 ATV-related deaths in the last 10 years on poor decision-making.

The doctor’s research paper on ATV injuries and deaths says that young men who rode ATVs without helmets after drinking were the ones that would most often land on his operating table.

In 2008, ATVs caused 5,834 Alberta emergency visits, and 781 of those needed admitting to hospital. All well and good, as perhaps improving the breed, or at least educating people, I suppose, except that, over a decade ATV-related health-care costs exceeded $65 million.

As we drove back home from north and west of Caroline on Sunday afternoon of the recent long weekend, it was obvious that, given no clear water for fishing, the “recreation” of choice was seeing whose ATV was toughest at tearing up the landscape. West of Caroline is a hotbed for ATV operators trashing public land and doing likewise after trespassing on private land.

Three quarters of the rigs heading home were hauling trailer loads of two, three, maybe four ATVs, all coated — encrusted — with the precious topsoil of the land they had been destroying.

Even more frightening were the few sparkling clean Kamikazes, which probably meant that, before loading, their owners washed them off in, and added to the silt load of, the nearest trout stream.

West Central Stakeholders should be commended for taking on an impossible task of educating the impermeable: people who cannot comprehend the difference between a privilege and a right, who respect nothing, not even themselves, and who are totally ignorant of the harm they are doing because they have no idea of how, in nature, all things are connected.

While we wait, for the Alberta government to give us something other than more “ATV education,” an Alberta government spokesperson persists in peddling this idiocy: “We can only enforce provincial legislation on public land.” Excuse me? Just as the ones that come most immediately to mind: Alberta’s Wildlife Act and its Sportfishing Regulations are both eminently enforceable on both public and private land, as is most other Alberta legislation.

I never tire of pointing out the irony that Alberta legislation already contains many provisions in The Public Lands Act for dealing with the ATV atrocities on public land, which could include the seizure and forfeiture to the Crown of the ATVs, trailers and trucks. There can be huge fines and court orders to repair the damage.

A few of those would “educate” some of these ATV people. All we need is some enforcement officers who can read and give them the gas allowance to get out in the field, especially on long weekends.

I do not mean to downgrade education that is more than throwaway stuff.

There must be a stiff course that costs, to teach ATV safety for the operator, other humans, fish and wildlife and the land, all leading to a licence that costs, in order to operate an ATV anywhere, and especially on public land. Similar initiatives have made possessing and using a firearm and hunting much safer activities for all and everything concerned than the virtual gong show of unregulated ATVs in Alberta.

After that, there would have to be a substantial annual licence fee to operate an ATV on public land in Alberta. Why should hunters and anglers, who tread far more lightly on the land, be the only ones to pay for the privilege?

Bob Scammell is an award-winning outdoors writer living in Red Deer.