KAWARTHA LAKES – As council nears a final decision on the off-road vehicles task force recommendations for expanding available terrain in Kawartha Lakes, the local health unit expressed their concerns at todays Committee of the Whole meeting.
The provincial government has passed Bill 107, a provincial regulation that will permit off-road vehicles, ORV, use on all road networks under municipal jurisdiction, unless the municipality itself restricts access. Bill 107 doesn’t apply to the City of Kawartha Lakes, (CKL) because of the municipal structure but it does apply to almost all the municipalities that border it.
And even though the new Bill doesn’t apply to CKL, council decided to delve into more possibilities for ORV users and developed an Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) Task Force in hopes of creating more safe opportunities for those who want to enjoy the trails that the city has to offer.
Currently, the recommendations that have been made to council have been temporarily deferred. The task force and council will now have more to consider after Dr. Natalie Bocking, Medical Officer of Health, Haliburton Kawartha Pine Ridge District Health Unit, HKPR, presented them with data and concerns from a public health perspective.
“I am passionate about this as a resident of Kawartha Lakes and public health,” she said. “As a reminder, the health unit mandate is to protect and promote public health of our residents, included in our mandate is to address road safety to reduce the burden of preventable injuries, promoting active transportation and supporting the creation of age friendly communities.”
According to Bocking, between 2015 and 2019, the age standardized rate of emergency visits within HKPR from ORV incidents increased from 174.9 to 226 visits per 100,000 people, this time frame and rates include a total of 602 emergency department visits, averaging 120 emergency visits per year related to ORV incidents.
“HKPR is in the top four every year of health units with highest rates of emergency department visits,” she said.
The majority of emergency department visits are occurring in the younger population of 10 to 19, approximately 30 per cent, while hospitalizations are distributed more equally among those 20 to 29. That amount decreases in those 60 and older, she said.
“Research indicates that there are higher rates of fatalities and serious injuries for ORV riders on roadways compared to off roadways as being on roadways increases the risk of collision with other motor vehicles,” said Bocking. “Certain design characteristics of these vehicles, particularly ATVs make them unsafe for roadways.”
Research has also shown that the majority of ORV related emergency visits occur on the weekend from Friday to Saturday and almost all are related to recreational use of ORVs.
“It is also important to note that accidents involving ORVs are classified as non-traffic accidents unless the contrary is stated, which may under report ATV related traffic accidents,” added Bocking.
Specific data to Ontario in terms of risk factors for ORV associated Injury provided by the health unit includes:
- Alcohol and drug use
- Riding at night
- Lack of helmet use
- Excessive speed
“In addition to looking at the data related to injuries associated with ORV use in CKL, as well as research findings and literature reviews, another consideration from a public health perspective is how policies related to ORV use also impacts other public health initiatives.”
Bocking encouraged council to look at the impact of one policy and how it can potentially impact another policy of public health.
“Active transportation systems are designed to create infrastructure that supports citizens to conduct their essential activities in an active manner and to enjoy increased recreational opportunities,” she said. “From a purely public health perspective, taking in consideration the data and literature reviews, we recommend limiting ORV to trail use only, as community leaders, many things you have to take into consideration for your community members and public health is just one of many.”
Bocking’s report also suggested that if council feels that ORV use cannot be restricted to trail use and trail connections only, the health unit recommends restricting ORV use to rural arterial municipal roads, also restrict ORV use on additional CKL roads or sections where road characteristics are not conducive to safe ORV use.
“I think there has been a lot of focus provincially, on specific regulations that can support safe use of ORVs and with that we would encourage you to consider bylaws and other enforcement measures that would specify and enforce such important risk factors as speed limits, times they’re allowed to operate knowing the highest risk is at nighttime, aligning the timing of access to roads with that of the trail system from May 1 to December 1,” added Bocking. “And to emphasize provincial regulations relating to minimum age and safety requirements such requirement to wear an approved helmet.”
As a member of the task force, councillor Tracy Richardson noted that they requested the report to help manage the significant ORV growth across CKL safely and legally.
“As council, we took this upon us as the province is making changes, we want to come up with reasonable solutions while respecting all interests across Kawartha Lakes,” she said.
Chair of the task force, Councillor Pat Dunn noted that while some riders may choose to disobey the law, those who want to use ORV’s safely shouldn’t have to suffer the consequences.
“The vast majority of ATV riders obey the law, they wear helmets and obey the speed limits, recommendations for safety are pretty much standard,” he said. “I recognize there are people out there that choose to flout the law, which you can find anywhere in every endeavour, should we choose to punish people who didn’t choose to flout the law or should we just catch the guys who choose to do it.”
Bocking reassured the Councillor that the public health unit is hoping to protect the public, not punish them.
“This might be seen as punishment to some but overall, we are trying to protect the public, it’s about promoting safety overall, not on a punishment side,” she said.
For Mayor Letham, providing opportunities for his constituents to get outside and to do what they love is crucial, especially when considering the mental health factors in today’s world.
“Any accident is one too many, when we talk about an active lifestyle, how do we factor in mental health, for some people getting on an ATV and riding in the bush is important from a mental health perspective,” he said. “I know what we are talking about here, road linkages to our trails, not about opening rural roads, I totally get your concern about that (rural roads) but a road linkage, 20 km hour, on a specific route to a trail to enable more people to enjoy that relaxation, there is always going to be risk, there is risk in everything we do.”
Bocking agreed, there is no such thing as zero risk, noting that the health unit strives for risk reduction while adding that one’s health impact is also vital.
“These are challenging decisions, trying to advocate and balance the interests of all of your constituents,” said Bocking.
In May, after careful, strategic planning, the task force recommended that ATVs travel on specific routes through Bobcaygeon and Lindsay, which will come back to council for a decision.