Pandemic fuels surge in demand for all-terrain vehicles

New Brunswick·CBC Investigates

Last year, 56,789 new ATVs were sold across Canada, according to figures provided by the Canadian Off-Highway Vehicle Distributors Council, which represents manufacturers and distributors. Some injury prevention advocates are concerned about new, inexperienced riders on trails.

All but one of the all-terrain vehicles on the sales floor at Fredericton's Hawkins Equipment were spoken for on one afternoon in March.(Ed Hunter/CBC)

On a late afternoon in March, all but one of the all-terrain vehicles on the sales floor at Fredericton's Hawkins Equipment were spoken for.

Phones rang steadily at the parts counter, too, as people looked to spruce up their machines ahead of warmer weather.

ATV retailers normally see a boost in sales each spring, but every month has felt that way lately, according to Shawn Bordage, the sales manager at Hawkins Equipment.

"Almost the only way to get something right now is to factory order it, to pick it out, put a deposit [down] and say, 'It'll be yours in a month or two,'" Bordage said in an interview back in March.

As people look for COVID-safe outdoor activities, sales of ATVs have surged across the country.

It's left some injury prevention experts and even ATV rider groups concerned about inexperienced riders hitting the trails this summer.

At least 555 Canadians have died on ATVs or snowmobiles across Canada since 2018, a CBC News investigation found. The toll has prompted calls for changes, from tougher safety rules to design alterations aimed at making the machines less prone to tip or roll over.

Sales of new ATVs up 30% over 2019

In 2020, 56,789 new ATVs were sold across Canada, according to figures provided by the Canadian Off-Highway Vehicle Distributors Council, which represents manufacturers and distributors.

That's 30 per cent higher than total sales in 2019, the figures show. Sales of new ATVs were up in every single Canadian province and territory.

So far this year, to the end of March, 13,582 new ATVs were sold, the data shows. That's slightly more than double the number sold during the same time frame in 2020.

The numbers don't capture sales of new side-by-sides or measure the used ATV market.

But at Hawkins Equipment in Fredericton, Bordage said he sees an active used market, too. People can trade in their used ATVs at the store.

"For what we get here [that's] used, it's 100 per cent always sold immediately," Bordage said.

Shawn Bordage, the sales manager at Hawkins Equipment in Fredericton, has been busy fielding calls from people looking to buy ATVs.(Ed Hunter/CBC)

He estimated buyers have been split between people who've bought ATVs before and first-time riders.

Bordage doesn't think the demand will wane any time soon.

"Even when we all get our [COVID-19 vaccine] shots, and everybody's safe to fly, there will still be a high percentage of people that will refuse to fly right yet, just too soon," he said.

"I think this will continue for a year, if not two years, actually. That's my guess."

ATVs a fallback for people not taking vacations

The surge in interest in buying ATVs caught manufacturers and distributors by surprise, according to Bob Ramsay, president of the Canadian Off-Highway Vehicle Distributors Council. With people losing their jobs, he wasn't sure how many people would be rushing out to buy brand new ATVs, which retail for thousands of dollars, depending on the model and brand.

But Ramsay said some have found ATVs can be a good way to spend time with family and enjoy the outdoors.

"They became very much a fallback position for people who couldn't go on vacations, for people who had children and wanted to do things with them and couldn't take them to Disney World or to their grandparents' and things of that nature," Ramsay said.

Like Bordage, Ramsay has also heard of two different kinds of buyers: people upgrading their machines and people who are new to the sport.

Some don't get 'the lingo and the culture'

It's people in the latter group who are causing concern for some ATV rider federations, according to Wayne Daub, general manager of the Canadian Quad Council. The council represents more than 100,000 riders with provincial riding organizations, many of which are reporting new members.

"That has given the rider federations a significant problem of having new riders on trails who don't understand the lingo and the culture as far as it being a privilege to be on trails," Daub said.

New ATV riders can be a concern to some ATV rider federations if they're on the trail and don't understand the rules or the culture, according to Wayne Daub, general manager of the Canadian Quad Council.(Mike Heenan/CBC)

Many of those trails are on private land, thanks to land-use agreements with the owners.

In early spring, for example, very few trails are typically open because the land is soft, Daub said, and ATVs can cause damage if riders use the trails too early.

"However, getting that message out to new riders is very difficult, because the culture of an ATV, if you go to YouTube or whatnot, is 'Bury it in the mud up to its handlebars,' and, well, this is the time of the year that you can do that," he said.

"But that's truly not what organized ATV'ing is about."

Concern for new, inexperienced riders

New and inexperienced riders on the trails also concern Pamela Fuselli, a Toronto-based injury prevention advocate who serves as president and CEO of Parachute Canada.

If a rider hasn't used an ATV before, they might not be familiar with common scenarios that result in injuries, such as when the vehicle rolls over sideways.

"If they haven't used those machines, I think that they are unfamiliar with potentially the power, with how to operate them safely and understanding what the vehicle, the ATV, is capable of and making sure that they're not pushing it beyond its limits," Fuselli said.

Most buyers can take a brand new ATV home and ride it right away, with no instruction or safety training on how to operate the machine.

That's because only one province, Nova Scotia, requires mandatory safety training for adult riders, and even that province has some exceptions to the rule.

Daub's organization supports training for all but has stopped short of calling for mandatory training because of the logistical challenges that could pose.

New ATV buyers should pay attention to the manufacturer's warning labels, according to the Canadian Off-Highway Vehicle Distributors Council.(Ed Hunter/CBC)

In addition to training, Ramsay said, new riders should pay attention to their machine's warning labels and owner's manual. The Canadian Off-Highway Vehicle Distributors Council offers additional educational materials to riders on its website.

Back at Hawkins Equipment in Fredericton, young riders under 16 are required by law to take safety training in New Brunswick. The store also provides a CD with a training video for those riders, according to the sales manager.

Bordage, who has been riding off-road vehicles for nearly three decades, said safety starts with training young people so they'll develop good habits early.

As for adult riders, those who take their time on the machines and follow the rules, such as wearing helmets, should be fine, Bordage said, noting that many customers have prior experience on ATVs.

But you can't control what people do when they leave the store.

"It's no different than selling really fancy cars," he said.

"You can't give them a driving course. They're there to buy, and you sell it, and you do the best you can, selling the right machine for the right person."

With research from Cathy Ross

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