Vol. 80, No. 3Panel discussion

Female police officer operating a motor boat.

What best keeps riders safe on trails and waterways?

Cpl. Christina Wilkins says danger awareness, wearing safety gear and following proper riding practices are all key to a safe ride. Credit: Courtesy of Cpl. Christina Wilkins

When it comes to safety, most Canadians know what they should be doing behind the wheel of a car: wearing a seatbelt, driving sober and keeping their eyes on the road. But riders don't always apply those same sensible rules to recreational vehicles. We asked six RCMP officers to share their best approaches — whether education, training or enforcement — to ensure the safe use of all-terrain vehicles, boats and snowmobiles.

The panellists

  • Cpl. Christina Wilkins, Rural Enhanced Policing Unit, County of Grande Prairie, Alberta
  • S/Sgt. Stephen MacQueen, Lunenburg County District, Nova Scotia
  • Insp. Alexandre Laporte, Yellowknife detachment, Northwest Territories
  • Cpl. Sheldon Clouter, Musquodoboit Harbour detachment, Nova Scotia
  • Cpl. Janet LeBlanc, Northern Corridor Traffic Services, Amherst detachment, Nova Scotia
  • Cpl. Cam Long, Police Dog Service & Division Search and Rescue co-ordinator, Yukon Territory

Cpl. Christina Wilkins

Specialized patrols of the trails and waterways are a big part of my duties as the commander of the Enhanced Policing Unit. Along with my unit and partners from various agencies such as Fish and Wildlife and County Enforcement, I often scour the more remote areas of the county to conduct enforcement but, more importantly, to impart awareness and provide education on safe-riding and operating practices.

There are countless safety tips from government and other safety-minded agencies highlighting the basics of back country exploration via off-highway vehicle (OHV) or boat. The lists can become very detailed, and I recommend being prepared. However, from a policing perspective, I keep our safety message simple: Don't drink and operate, and wear a helmet or life jacket.

While conducting boat patrols, I've noticed that many vessel operators and their passengers (upwards of 90 per cent) do not don a life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD) when boating. It's also not uncommon for occupants, including the operator, to be consuming alcohol. Drinking and driving laws are federally mandated by means of the Criminal Code of Canada and apply equally to the operation of vessels on waterways as they do to motor vehicles on highways.

Legislation surrounding use of life jackets is also federally regulated. The minimal requirement for vessel operators is to have one PFD on board for each occupant. While conducting routine vessel checks, many users do meet the minimum PFD criteria and are quick to haul out ill-maintained life jackets that aren't intended for anyone in particular but are just 'there' to check a box on the safety list.

I've seen first-hand how a boat can capsize within seconds, throwing its occupants into the water. There's no time to locate a proper-fitting PFD and securely fasten it to the body. Add in the potential hazard of mind-altering substances such as alcohol and the result can be fatal.

The same can also be said for OHV helmets. Long gone are the days of one-size-fits-most. When riding on vehicles such as quads and snowmobiles that can reach speeds of over 80 kilometres per hour, a correctly fitted helmet that's properly secured can make all the difference in the event of a collision.

What best keeps riders safe on the trails and waterways is danger awareness, together with the willingness to wear safety gear while applying safe-riding practices.

S/Sgt. Stephen MacQueen

The South Shore of Nova Scotia is a major attraction for boating enthusiasts due to its picturesque landscape, the hundreds of islands that dot the coastline and natural beauty. Various communities take advantage of this tourism boom by hosting regattas, festivals and events, which are great for local businesses. However, the influx of boating increases potential issues from a public safety point of view.

A 2016 report prepared by the Lifesaving Society of Canada revealed that the Maritime provinces have a higher rate of drowning than the national average. Between 2009 and 2013, 138 drowning fatalities occurred in the Maritime provinces alone. Among the fatalities related to boating, in 80 per cent of the cases, the individual was not wearing a personal flotation device, 54 per cent were boating after dark, and 35 per cent involved alcohol consumption.

Lunenburg County District RCMP came up with a plan to be proactive in educating boaters on the laws, regulations and general safety tips. In conjunction with Nova Scotia RCMP Strategic Communications Unit, the district conducted boat patrols while using Twitter to send out boating information via tweets. Prior to the patrols, media outlets were advised of the initiative, which garnered much interest including interviews of our police officers.

Interacting with the public on the water and over social media was a very effective way to get our message out in a fun and interactive way. At the end of the day, we provided a wrap-up of some of the most common violations we observed during the patrols including how much the fines would have been had the offenders been charged.

I believe education is the No. 1 way we'll see a decrease of violations and ultimately see a reduction in lives lost at sea. After education, police visibility and enforcement is key, and Lunenburg County District commits to having its police boat on the water a minimum of three times a week during the months of June through September, to do just that.

Insp. Alexandre Laporte

The Northwest Territories offers a unique and challenging landscape with easy access to lakes, rivers and isolated areas. Harsh conditions prevail in the winter, and 24-hour daylight impacts activities in the summer.

As our remote areas become more accessible to Canadians and tourists, the risk of outdoor incidents increases. In the Northwest Territories, public awareness campaigns focusing on preparedness and survivability are one the best ways of informing the public about the inherent dangers of the wilderness, and the challenges of search-and-rescue operations.

As visibility continues to be our best outreach and deterrent, the RCMP in Yellowknife works with other partner agencies to conduct joint boat patrols on lakes and rivers. Three such patrols were successfully completed last summer.

The patrols work. In one instance, as the joint marine patrol was preparing to head out, the Iqaluit Coast Guard alerted the team about a vessel in distress on Great Slave Lake. During the search-and-rescue operation, the marine patrol helped the Auxiliary Coast Guard locate and then transport six children and two adults safely back to Yellowknife with the vessel in tow.

As employees from different agencies team up and share assets, it gives these joint units the ability to ensure compliance and enforcement of a multitude of federal and territorial acts, and minimize the resourcing pressures on each department compared to performing similar patrols without co-ordination.

In addition to being positively received by the public and community leaders, these patrols provide an opportunity for RCMP members to learn about the responsibilities and practices of other agencies, which enhances interoperability in a region where partnerships continue to be so valuable.

Personal safety remains an individual's responsibility, but our inter-agency strategy and efforts help contribute to safe practices of recreational activities year round.

Cpl. Sheldon Clouter

As a member of the RCMP and an avid all-terrain-vehicle (ATV) user, safety is always on my mind. I try to be proactive in my approach with other ATV users.

In Nova Scotia, we have some amazing ATV associations that have very well-run rallies. These rallies are an opportunity for ATV riders to come together and enjoy everything recreational vehicles can offer, from breathtaking views to an abundance of wildlife.

Our presence at these rallies is a great way to ensure the safety of all ATV riders and enforce the Nova Scotia Off-highway Vehicles Act, the Highway Traffic Act and the Criminal Code of Canada.

At rallies, we can also educate riders on all aspects of ATV safety and the applicable laws. It provides the RCMP with a network to engage our communities and the citizens who enjoy these recreational activities.

It also provides riders peace of mind knowing that the RCMP are on the trails, ready and equipped to deal with any situation that might arise.

Cpl. Janet LeBlanc

Northwest Traffic Services' Amherst office is located at the Amherst RCMP detachment in Cumberland County, Nova Scotia.

The county has an extensive trail system that people use year round. The trails are well used by hikers, horseback riders, ATVers, and snowmobilers. Our goal is for everyone to be able to enjoy and use these trails safely.

Our team has formed partnerships with the Department of Natural Resources and local clubs, such as the Cumberland County Rider ATV Club. We've met with its members and listened to their concerns about trail usage.

The RCMP conducts patrols of the local trails year round — with snowmobiles when the trails are snow covered and on ATVs the remaining part of the year.

We've also set up checkpoints on the trails during specific events. The focus is education alongside enforcement.

The majority of recreational vehicle users are law abiding and we've received positive feedback when we conduct our checks. Of course, there are a few who aren't law abiding, and they are not happy to see us. Drivers who have consumed alcohol have been charged with impaired driving. During one initiative, we seized a stolen ATV.

Another strategy that we've used is to set up checkpoints where a trail meets a roadway. When we do this, we don't even need to have a member on a recreational vehicle — they can simply use a police vehicle. This has proven successful.

Members enjoy getting out on the ATVs and snowmobiles and spending a day on the trails. Overall, the recreational vehicle users are appreciative of our efforts and event organizers are always happy when we participate.

Cpl. Cam Long

For many Canadians, especially in rural communities, ATV riding, snowmobiling and boating are simply a way of life. For others, it's more for recreation.

Prior to an incident occurring, there are several different approaches for police officers to consider.

Providing a clear, consistent message regarding safety through education and public awareness can effectively reach the vast majority of recreational riders. Although messaging should be consistent, it should also come from a variety of sources. Establishing a unified approach with partners is key to getting the desired message out.

Any education or public awareness initiative focused on outdoor activities should include the "three Ts" (trip planning, training and taking the essentials). If riders and waterway users were truly committed to the three Ts, we would undoubtedly see fewer incidents.

Aside from consistent messaging, timely messaging is equally important. For example, just before a long weekend when traditionally there are more incidents or when the avalanche risk in the backcountry is high, you want to engage the public.

From my experience, the majority of incidents result from poor planning, lack of training, lack of exposure and people not staying within their limits.

Quality training is certainly the first step. Whether someone is a first-time operator or has extensive experience, everyone benefits from good training.

There's always a percentage of the population that requires enforcement — ATV riders, snowmobilers and boaters are no different. Effective enforcement remains a key element to overall safety.

Enforcement efforts also provide an opportunity to engage the public with positive reinforcement messaging. Take note and praise operators who are doing things the right way.

Finally, officers should lead by example. To maintain a professional image and the community's trust, police equipment should be well maintained, and operators should be well trained, properly equipped and competent at the task.

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