Stephen Tonson, Skydive Auckland

If you thought your audit was expensive, think again!

Your adventure tourism operator audit might seem expensive, but the consequences of not having one can be catastrophic as discovered by Prestige Adventures Limited. It’s time to regard our audit as part of our business insurance and an investment in our business rather than a pure cost.

The result

Prestige Adventure Limited was an adventure company with a great future ahead of it. However, a few wrong decisions led to the tragic death of two British tourists in 2019, the collapse of the business and the financial ruin of the director.

WorkSafe brought a prosecution against the company and its director. The result was the company was fined $595,000 and the director was ordered to pay $100,000 in reparations to the families of the two deceased. The fines could have been in the millions, but the judge recognised there was a financial incapacity to pay any additional amount.

There are always risks with adventure activities- if there was no risk, then it would not be called an adventure activity and there would be no need to have regulations governing how those activities should operate. The key is to abide by the law and take reasonable steps to manage those risks. By doing this, it lessens the likelihood of injury or death to participants.

Gary Murphy (50) and Trevor Smith (55), both from the UK were part of a multi-day trip across the South Island using a mixture of ATVs, horses, walking and rafting. In the afternoon of the first day of the trip, the two deceased were driving an ATV and the wheels on the right-hand side of the ATV crossed the right edge of the track, causing it to over-balance and fall more than 80 metres, killing both men instantly.

As an industry, we need to study these sorts of tragic events and learn from them. It is one thing to read about rules, regulations and guidance documents, but these are often regarded as being ‘over the top and unnecessary’ by some of the old and bold operators. However, it is tragedies like this one that have resulted in the rules and regulations we have today. This tragic event might be about ATVs and an unlicensed operator, but there are elements of what went wrong that applies to all adventure activities.


What went wrong?

  • The tour run by Prestige Adventure Limited was definitely an adventure activity as it involved guiding participants who were driving ATVs. Prestige Adventure Ltd enquired about obtaining certification but decided against it due to the perceived cost. If they had become certified, then they would need to have proven they could operate ATV tours as per the ATV Activity Safety Guideline. Not being certified meant they had no defence against the law.
  • A documented Safety Management System (SMS) which staff would have been inducted into was not in place.
  • Documented Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) relating to ATV specific activities was not in place.
  • The operator led the group across a property where they did not have current permission to access. This was not necessarily a safety issue, but it did show disregard for the law.
  • Failing to pre-drive the route to undertake a time and space appreciation and identify the hazards.
  • Failing to undertake a full safety briefing just prior to commencing to drive on 23 March 2019.
  • Conducting initial familiarisation training the day before and not revising that on 23 March and then failing to conduct progressive driver training as the afternoon progressed.
  • Embarking on a 90km route at 1300hr when this should have been a full day activity rather than an afternoon activity.
  • Not having communications with each driver and regularly talking to them about fatigue levels, staying hydrated, how confident they felt, when to stop etc. The fact that earlier in the afternoon one of the drivers had indicated he felt uncomfortable to drive the track should have been a warning for the tour leader to reassess the route and speed.
  • The need to drive at a speed to make up lost time would have contributed to more punctures not less. In this sort of terrain, it is often better to go slower and drive smoother rather than faster if a group wants to travel long distances in a short time. It is the delays caused by punctures and vehicle breakages that slow the group more than driving at a slow speed.
  • The leader telling drivers to avoid the rocks. This is often difficult to do, and it is better to slow down and roll over them rather than swerve to avoid them on narrow sections of the track.
  • Failure to stop more frequently as the day wore on to reduce fatigue.
  • Failure to consider the fatigue levels of participants. They may still have been suffering from jet lag, heat and dust plus dehydration. Due to the operator desire to make the scheduled night stop with no contingency to shorten the route, participants may have been reluctant to stop and drink water to rehydrate.
  • The written event documents were more focussed on the administration logistics side of the tour (which are important) and failed to address the health and safety aspects of the route and the activity itself (which is more important).

What can you do?

Learn from this tragedy. Read the court summary relating to Prestige Adventure Limited and the court summary against the director.

Then take time to review your activity to see whether something like this could happen to you.

Author: David Greenslade is a ROSA member. He’s an AdventureMark auditor and technical expert for motorbike, ATV, and 4x4 adventure tourism audits.