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Coroner: Helmet may have saved teen’s life

By Emily Norman

[email protected]

The death of a teenager in an off-road quad bike crash has prompted a coroner to recommend a law change requiring the wearing of a helmet when operating all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), including quad bikes.

But the New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA) has indicated this cannot be done under existing legislation.

The coroner, reviewing last year’s death of Rhys Mair, 17, on a South Wairarapa farm, also recommended that a separate classification and licence class be established for riders of ATVs, but NZTA said these changes would not cover off-road use.

Rhys and two of his friends were on a quad bike ride in rural Martinborough early last year when he hit a rock and was catapulted off the bike, tumbling 60m down a bank.

He had not been wearing a helmet, and died at the scene because of a severe head injury.

In his findings that have now been released, Coroner JP Ryan recommended a law change to the effect that “all persons riding on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), including quad bikes, are required to wear a crash helmet”.

Though it cannot be stated with certainty that a helmet would have saved Rhys’s life, the coronial findings suggest the extent of his head injury would have been reduced if he had been wearing a helmet, thus his prospects of surviving the crash would have been “greatly enhanced”.

Rhys’s mother Jane Mair had also been pushing for a law change since her son’s death, saying it was likely he would have worn a crash helmet if he had been legally required to.

Under the Land Transport (Road User) Rule 2004, some, but not all, ATV riders must wear helmets when on public roads.

Because Rhys had been travelling off-road on a farm near Hinakura, he was not legally required to wear a crash helmet.

Responding to the coroner’s recommendations, NZTA said changing road-related legislation would have no bearing on the off-road use of ATVs, and was hence, “unlikely to create the effect desired by Coroner Ryan”.

On the second recommendation, NZTA advised that ATVs were already a distinct “class” within land transport law, and that creating a separate licence class would involve a change to the Land Transport (Driver Licensing) Rule 1999 — which only applies when a vehicle is being driven on a road.

Both WorkSafe New Zealand and the Accident Compensation Corporation encourage or recommend the use of helmets when using quad bikes.

In WorkSafe’s response to the coroner’s recommendations, it was stated that the organisation had initiated three prosecutions for breaches of health and safety duties relating to quad bikes since January 2014, and were investigating two other incidents which may lead to further prosecutions.


How the fatal crash unfolded


Rhys Mair had promised his mother he would wear a helmet.

At the end of February last year, the Upper Hutt teenager died from head injuries after a quad bike crash at Moeraki Station, South Wairarapa.

Rhys, 17, had been with two friends, travelling to a hut at the back of the Hinakura farm on two quads, though Rhys was an inexperienced rider.

On their return journey, the group took a new track that had been made that summer along the top of ridges.

It had a 13-degree downhill slope.

Rhys was in the lead and his two friends were riding on another quad bike when a tyre on Rhys’s bike punctured.

The group stopped to repair it using a zip tie, chewing gum, and electrical tape, as they did not have a puncture repair kit.

Rhys had been travelling at about 10 or 15kmh, stopping occasionally to pump more air into the tyre, when he drove over a rock the “size of an indoor soccer ball” which made the quad roll over the side of the track.

He was “catapulted” off the bike and over the edge and then tumbled down the steep slope for at least 60m along with the quad bike.

Rhys’ friends jumped off their bike and slid down the hill to where he lay up against a bush, a large amount of blood coming from his head.

They tried to stem the blood, before one friend went back up the hill with a cellphone to call emergency services.

The other friend stayed with Rhys, taking care of him as best he could, but he died at the scene before emergency services arrived by helicopter.

The incident was investigated by the Serious Crash Unit (SCU), and the quad bike was examined that day by qualified motorcycle mechanic Daniel Wilson.

It was found that the tread depth on the tyres was at an acceptable level, but the tyre pressures were not within the manufacturer’s specifications.

The rear tyres should have had 4psi (pounds per square inch), and the front tyres should have had 4.5psi, Mr Wilson said.

Instead, the left front tyre was at 3.5psi, the right front at 1psi, the left rear at 10psi, and the right rear at 0psi.

It was the right rear tyre that had the rudimentary puncture repair.

Mr Wilson noted this kind of “bush repair” was simply a temporary repair only, to get a bike home.

Coroner JP Ryan said contributing factors to the crash were the steep slope combined with narrow track width, along with unbalanced tyre pressures, primitive puncture repair, and Rhys’s “very limited experience” of riding quad bikes.

“There is one very important safety factor missing from the equation: Rhys was not wearing a crash helmet when this crash occurred. Nor were [his friends],” the coroner said.

In her written response to the SCU report, Rhys’s mother Jane Mair said she had secured a promise from her son that he would wear a helmet that day.

She believed Rhys would have asked for one and said that, because of his obliging nature, would not have wanted to put his friends through too much trouble to get a helmet, and therefore did not insist on having one.

She has described the number of quad bike deaths in New Zealand as an “epidemic”.

The coroner agreed in his findings that the number of deaths due to quad bike crashes was “horrendous”.

Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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