ABU DHABI // Quad bikes pose a serious health threat because they are often ridden dangerously by people without adequate training, health officials have warned.
Dr Jens Thomsen, head of occupational and environmental health at the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi, said the all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) pose a "serious health concern" in Abu Dhabi because they are frequently used in an "unsafe manner by untrained people of inadequate age and capabilities".
"Evidence suggests that they are quite popular in the UAE - on common roads and in residential areas as well as off-road, particularly by children, adolescents and young adults," he said.
While neither the Abu Dhabi authority nor the Dubai Health Authority has local statistics on quad bike use or injuries, Dr Thomsen's views are strengthened by the findings of a recent study from John Hopkins University's Centre for Surgery Trials and Outcomes in the US, which suggests off-road driving on two wheels is safer than four.
The researchers reviewed data from the nearly 60,000 patients in the US who suffered an injury in a crash involving one of the vehicles between 2002 and 2006. It found that people involved in ATV crashes were 50 per cent more likely to die of their injuries than those in similar two-wheel crashes. Quad bike drivers were 55 per cent more likely to be admitted to a hospital's intensive care unit and 42 per cent more likely to be placed on a ventilator than those using off-road motorbikes.
"There's a belief that four wheels must be safer than two. But we found the opposite," said Cassandra Villegas, a researcher at Johns Hopkins.
The researchers were unable to explain the discrepancy but one possible reason is that ATVs, because of their greater weight, are more prone to crush the driver than dirt bikes.
In December the Ministry of Interior said it would build a committee to examine federal laws governing quad bikes. It was expected to discuss setting a minimum age of 17 and introducing special testing and licensing for the vehicles.
Abu Dhabi's health authority strongly supports the introduction and tightening of local and federal regulations, Dr Thomsen said, as that could "significantly reduce the number of all-terrain-related injuries, disabilities and deaths."
Dubai is the only emirate with an age restriction - drivers under 16 cannot use the larger or faster models. Federally, the only other rules govern where the bikes can be used - fines are handed out to drivers on main roads and in industrial areas.
Dr Joseph Manna, the head of the emergency department at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, said the injuries the hospital treats were "serious" and frequently made worse by the lack of protective head gear.
"The worst case scenario is bleeding inside the brain but we also see skull fractures, neck injuries, bone breaks and cuts and bruises," he said.
Many patients are admitted to hospital with serious injuries because of the speed and terrain on which the bike was driven, he said.
"There's no education, that is the worst part," Dr Manna said. "And the rules need to be enforced."
Despite the findings of the Johns Hopkins study, local off-road enthusiasts doubt they are safer on an off-road bike than on an ATV.
"In my view, I would still go for a four-wheel vehicle over two wheels - surely they are stronger?" said Dennis Gathitu of Desert Rangers, an adventure sports and activities operator.
The study's findings also surprised Mark Montecillo, the marketing manager for KTM motorcycles, who has been an off-road enthusiast for years.
"While it's still dangerous if you don't know what you're doing, ATVs are very stable and make it easier for beginners to get going," he said.
"The four wheels take away the inherent imbalance. If you make a mistake in the sand and approach too slow, you would end up digging into the sand; with two wheels, you would tip over."