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Isn’t it wonderful to feel the wind on your face, immersed in the experience of driving a vehicle – open to the elements? Whether you want to ride a motorcycle as your primary mode of transportation or enjoy traversing rugged off-road terrain, you have a lot in common with the numerous thrill-seekers of Australia. Open-air vehicles qualify as any motorised vehicle that is designed to expose the passengers to the outside air which includes (but is not limited to) off-road motor bikes, mopeds, on-road motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, and some 4 wheel drive vehicles.

They can serve a variety of purposes including recreation, transportation, and farm use. Between all of the vehicle designs and all the different ways to utilise them, you have nearly unlimited choices in your open-air vehicle experience.

Open air vehicle accidents on the rise in Australia

The popularity of open-air vehicles grows each year but unfortunately, so does their danger factor.

For example, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries reports that road bikes, or motorcycles, made up 40% of the sales in 2015 in the overall motorcycle category (including ATVs, scooters, and off-road bikes) with a 2.6 increase over the previous year. The Centre for Accident Research & Road Safety – Queensland (CARRS-Q) expands on that with some eye-opening facts; motorcycles make up around 4.5% of registered vehicles in Australia, but account for 15% of all road crash deaths and even more injuries. CARRS-Q also reports the overall death toll from road accidents has decreased over the years, but motorcycle accidents have increased.

Despite the clear correlation to danger, registration for motorcycles has had the strongest growth increase of any on-road vehicle type.

Open-air vehicles are exhilarating, but the evidence demonstrates that their fun goes hand in hand with higher risks. This guide discusses safety tips for the types of open-air vehicles that are most commonly used and associated with injurious and fatal accidents in Australia. If you own one or intend to own one, you should be informed of those risks, how to decrease them, and how to improve your safety.

Mopeds and motorcycles, oh my!

Rising rates of motorcycle crashes may be partially due to the fact that “motorcycle” as a census category encompasses scooters and mopeds. The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries reports that scooter sales declined last year, but a study by CARRS-Q shows that the rise in moped crashes were more than double the rise of motorcycle crashes.

Mopeds and motorcycles

Part of the appeal of mopeds is that unlike a motorcycle, you don’t need to obtain a special license to ride one. This, in addition to lower costs and restricted parking availability are causing younger and more inexperienced drivers to purchase mopeds as their primary transportation which partially explains the high rate in crashes. In addition, the Department of Planning, Transport, and Infrastructure states on their scooter safety page that scooters are less stable than motorcycles. Because of their smaller wheel size, they are vulnerable to any changes in road surface. Besides this and acceleration differences, mopeds and motorcycles have overlapping risk factors so CARRS-Q lists the same safety tips for both.

  • Wear appropriate protective clothing. This includes a government-approved helmet (look for the AS1698 sticker), boots that protect your ankles, elbow pads or a jacket with impact protectors, and long, thick pants. Yes, moped owners: this applies to you too, even if you’re just going to the convenience store! If you crash you do not want bare, unprotected skin scraping against the pavement.
  • Due to smaller size and faster acceleration, other drivers often do not see motorcyclists. Avoid riding in blind spots and pass other vehicles at an acceleration comparable to a car. Wear high-visibility clothing, remain observant the entire time you are riding, and anticipate behavior of the motorists around you. (If you are driving in a car, always be on the lookout for motorcyclists when you’re behind the wheel.)
  • Avoid risk-taking! This increases the likelihood of an accident in and of itself but if you are tired, emotional, or under the influence, the chances of a crash compound.

Off-roading vehicles

At first glance, the open-air vehicles used for recreational off-roading and for farm work do not appear to be as hazardous as motorcycles, but that is misleading. There are simply fewer off-road vehicles in use than on-road motorcycles, but they can be just as perilous to an individual if the proper precautions are not taken. This section encompasses any off-road open-air vehicle, but safety information is disproportionately needed for quad bikes, as Australians injure or kill themselves in higher numbers on these particularly unstable vehicles.

“Quad bikes” are often called “quads” for short, and typically only seat one person in straddle position. The Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety explain what differentiates quad bikes from side-by-side vehicles (SSVs) in their Practical Management Guide: quads ride on four low pressure, high flotation tires, have handlebars for steering control, and may be 2- or 4- wheel drive. Due to design differences, quad bikes are preferred over SSVs by those who love to tear up terrain for fun; however, a study by McIntosh and Patton in 2014 found that fatalities caused by quads in the previous 13 years were evenly split between recreation and farm work.  They are appreciated by farmers because of their ability to operate in a variety of conditions, but they are the leading cause of death on Australian farms, of which 85% were due to the bike rolling over onto the bike operator.

For the novice drivers, quads can be dangerous

People mistakenly believe that quads are equipped to handle any terrain, but the statistics on rollover show that is obviously not the case. Safe Work Australia informs us that quad bikes do best on flat terrain, but if ridden on unstable ground, they require an active riding technique beyond the physical capacity of some riders. The Practical Management Guide lists paved and bitumen surfaces, slopes, rough/rocky ground, tussocky vegetation, contour and dam banks as terrain to avoid.

Be sure to equip your quad bike with foot plates that protect your feet and legs from injury as well as a tested Crush Protection Device (CPD) to limit injury and the possibility of death in the event of a rollover. Do not, under any circumstances, use the bike to carry or tow loads, as this will raise the centre of gravity. Wearing a helmet and riding at slower speeds are recommended. Children under 16 should not operate a quad bike.

Contrary to quad bikes, SSV designs are closer to that of a real car. They operate with gas and accelerator pedals and boast a legitimate steering wheel. Seats are upright and are designed to fit more than one person. They drive on four or more low-pressure, high-flotation tires, and unlike quads, are designed to carry heavy loads. The Practical Management Guide combines most SSV safety tips with those for quad bikes, but SSVs have seat belts which must always be worn. SSVs are equipped with their version of the CPD, called a Rollover Protective Structure (ROPS).

The takeaway

Whatever type of open-air vehicle you choose, this guide provides safety tips to help you stay safe no matter what kind of open road you hit. Always familiarise yourself with safety rules specific to the vehicle you’re operating, and use common sense. Once you feel comfortable enough to ride it safely, give in to the allure of adventure!

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