A stoush between farm safety advocates and quad bike manufacturers is heating up with both sides trading blows over controversial recommendations from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
In a letter addressed to the National Farmers' Federation's workforce chair Charles Armstrong, Honda managing director Robert Toscano accused the NFF of misleading its membership in regards to quad bike safety.
The letter from Mr Toscano, which was also sent to FarmOnline, said support of the ACCC recommendation that roll over or crush protection devices be mandatory, would mean farmers were less likely to wear helmets, attend training or prevent children from riding adult sized quad bikes.
Mr Toscano said NFF was leading its farm members and other quad bike users down "a much more dangerous path" by relying on "opinion rather than science" when it came to supporting the ACCC recommendations.
Mr Toscano went on to write that research paid for and commissioned by the quad bike manufacturers, almost twenty years ago, had found through simulations that the risk to benefit ratio was equal when it came to the fitting of operator protection devices.
The NFF and I have only one interest in this matter and that is promoting farm safety.
"What's even more concerning, Mr Armstrong, is that by publicly endorsing this proposal that OPDs will make all terrain vehicles safe, you are misleading your farmer members away from the real and proven safety measures, measures that all coroners recommended," he said.
"Seriously, Mr Armstrong, will the new, 'safer' ATVs you endorse mean that it will be okay for children to use them, or that helmet use can decline, or that your farmers will have less need for training?"
NFF hits back
Mr Armstrong responded to Mr Toscano's comments by saying he only had one interest and that was "promoting farm safety".
"The NFF stands by the decision to accept the opinions of Australian academics, the health and safety community, and government experts and the ACCC, over those which the manufacturers' have paid 'substantially' for," he said.
"Should there be an added cost to the retail cost of quad bikes, then as a farmer, I will bear that. A price increase is far less painful than the possible alternatives, life-altering injuries or death."
Quad bikes are not an exception to product safety best practice and the design of quad bikes should include consideration of safety under conditions of reasonably foreseeable use and misuse.
Mr Armstrong also refuted claims that by supporting engineering controls to quad bikes, other safety measures would fall by the wayside.
"I can't stress strongly enough the NFF's position, one I, categorically support, that children should never operate adult quad bikes and that adult operators should at all times wear a helmet. The NFF has always encouraged and promoted training, wearing helmets, restricting children's use or access to quad bikes and other safety practices," he said.
According to preliminary figures published on the the Safe Work Australia website, 2019 has already seen six fatalities due to quad bikes, with five linked to roll-overs and three listed as children under the age of 16.
Red herring helmets
Released in April, the ACCC draft quad bike safety standard exposureactually recommended complimentary safety controls including the introduction of mandatory licensing, age limits, training requirements or requiring operators to wear protective clothing, including helmets, as part of a holistic approach to quad bike safety, but noted these changes were under the jurisdiction of the individual states and territories and were outside the scope of the product focused ACCC.
Its report to the Federal Government primarily recommended federal regulatory changes to ensure all general use quad bikes in Australia met minimum international standards, better informed owners about the risk of rollover, had minimum stability requirements and had operator protection devices either integrated into the design, or fitted to the vehicles.
Recent media releases from Honda, Yamaha and lobby group Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, all refute the ACCC findings that operator protection devices, often referred to as either crush protection or roll over protection devices, should be made mandatory.
Toys out of the cot
Earlier this month, manufacturers Honda and Yamaha said should the ACCC recommendations be implemented they would pull out of the $200M Australian quad bike market rather than comply.
While this seems like a big hit for the manufacturers, in its response to the ACCC quad bike issues paper in back in 2017, manufacturer Polaris said the quad bike market was actually shrinking.
"Polaris forecasts that, if the current sales trends continue, ATV (quad bike) sales in Australia are likely to drop to negligible levels in around a decade," it said.
"Polaris notes that whilst it is leading this move toward consumer Side-by-Side and Polaris Ace type vehicles, the observed trend away from ATVs is industry-wide and not just associated with the Polaris brand."
Ignoring safety hierarchy
Piling onto the debate, in its latest media release, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries said the installation of operator protection devices, or as it refers to them, crush protection devices, could risk greater complacency by quad bike users, putting more lives at risk.
FCAI chief executive Tony Webb said quad bikes were an important farming tool, however if not used correctly posed risks.
"The answer is to make three fundamental behavioural changes to how people work with ATVs," he said.
"Behaviours that are plain common sense when using tools in any workplace, don't let children operate the vehicle, wear a helmet and educate users, it's as simple as that."
In its report, the ACCC acknowledged behavioural changes, personal protective equipment and administrative controls should be implemented, however stated engineering controls should also occur.
"Quad bikes are not an exception to product safety best practice and the design of quad bikes should include consideration of safety under conditions of reasonably foreseeable use and misuse," it said.
"From the information provided to the ACCC, operating general-use model quad bikes in these reasonably foreseeable ways can result in safety risks causing fatalities and injuries.
"The approach of a product safety focus at the design stage is consistent with application of the Hierarchy of Control Measures under the Work Health and Safety laws and regulations.
"Under the hierarchy, where possible, the highest level of control approaches should be used, and in practice, a combination of approaches may work best.
"The ACCC's recommendation involves a combination of engineering and administrative controls."
Deny the evidence
The ACCC said its report had followed extensive consultation and submissions, assessment of numerous coroners reports and research, including work conducted by NSW University on the behalf of Safe Work Australia.
However Mr Webb said the FCAI had seen no evidence-based research which proved fitting operator protection devices was the answer.
"Bolting on an unproven device is not a silver bullet making rural workplaces safe.
"Rollover simulation trials and university studies have shown that CPDs have no safety benefit in an ATV rollover," he said.
"Surely, a better approach is education of users and the wearing of helmets."
Farmers fight with manufacturers
Mr Webb said the FCAI needed the National Farmers Federation and State and Federal Governments to stop "messing about with unproven solutions".
"Dangerous and misleading assumptions that CPDs are a safety silver bullet belie reality, and risk greater complacency by users of these serious farming tools," he said.
"We need to start educating people on how to use these tools safely and stop needless injuries and deaths in our country's farming community."
NFF support the science
However Mr Armstrong said the NFF believed the evidence of the danger of quads bikes is clear and undeniable.
"If the many hundreds of deaths and life-changing injuries aren't enough to demonstrate this, there is also a library of academic evidence," he said.
"Attempts to qualify the cause of individual accidents are not helpful. They are merely a pursuit, in the name of self-interest, to frustrate the Parliament's implementation of what will be without a doubt, life-saving changes to quad bike manufacturer and operation.
"It is of paramount importance that immediate action is taken to improve the safety of quad bikes by implementing the ACCC's recommendations."
He said, she said
A Yamaha spokesperson said to Farmonline, the National Farmers' Federation had refused to engage with the company when it came to operator protection devices.
"The NFF has refused to engage with us, refusing multiple meeting requests and the one meeting they allowed they took OPDs off the agenda," he said.
However Mr Armstrong said the NFF was not aware of an attempt by Yamaha to meet with them.
"We certainly haven't declined the opportunity. In fact, we have had numerous meetings with the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, of which Yamaha is a member," he said.
In Mr Toscano's letter, he to said the NFF had failed to co-operate with the quad bike industry.
"Despite two requests by the ATV industry in 2018 requesting the NFF to cooperatively announce safety statements on helmets and banning children under 16 years, from adult size ATVs, the NFF is yet to respond; this is extremely disappointing," he said.
Mr Armstrong said the NFF last spoke with the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, the body representing quad bike manufacturers, about alternate safety projects in March 2019.
"So far as we are aware that discussion is ongoing, although our position will have to take into account Honda and Yamaha's attitude," he said.