State officials: Driver's license required to operating snowmobiles

Posted: Wednesday, February 06, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Officials of two state agencies say they have learned that state law requires operators of snowmobiles and all terrain vehicles to possess a driver's license, unless the machines are driven on private property.

Spokesmen at the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation said they only recently became aware of the law. They have since produced a brochure listing the license requirement.

The minimum age for a driver's license in Alaska is 16. A person can get a learner's permit at 14, but the permit requires supervision by a licensed driver.

Pete Panarese, a Department of Natural Resources official who oversees law enforcement in state parks, said he was embarrassed that the law was a revelation to him. He has since found out the law has been on the books since 1978.

''It's not unheard of for regulations to lie in the shadows,'' Panarese said.

''We expected that this would raise some eyebrows,'' said Jim Renkert, chief snowmobile trails official at the department.

Many Alaska State Troopers say the requirement is news to them.

Alaska State Trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson said the new interpretation of the old law will probably have little effect, given that it is ''not a high enforcement priority.''

That especially holds true in the Bush, he said, where few people have licenses and snowmobiles and ATVs are the chief mode of overland travel.

Even in the state's recreation hot spots, such as the Big Lake area, troopers are unlikely to enforce the law unless a snowmobile operator is behaving badly, he said.

Paul Prusak, northern region planning manager for the Department of Transportation, discovered the law about a year and a half ago as part of an expanding study of winter transportation.

The study began in 1997, when groups in Fairbanks asked for authority to groom bike trails for winter snowmachine traffic. Some trails had signs saying they could be used by snowmobilers.

But in researching the issue, Prusak and a department attorney found state law prohibits motorized traffic on the trails, winter or summer.

Prusak wondered what other surprises were in the law. He discovered that the state's driver's license statute covers operation of a ''motor vehicle'' not only on roads or rights of way but also on ''other public property in this state.'' The definition of ''motor vehicle'' elsewhere in the law was so broad that it clearly included snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.

Still skeptical, Prusak found a case in which a judge read the law the same way and held that the operator of an all-terrain vehicle needed a license.

In 2000, after reviewing alarming statistics on accidental injuries and deaths of children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that states not allow children younger than 16 to operate snowmobiles at all and not to let them operate ATVs unless they have a driver's license. The organization urged that training programs be put in place for older teens.

Prusak said Alaskans probably will not want their state to be one of the most restrictive places when it comes to snowmobiling. They expect the state's nine-member Snowmobile Trails Advisory Committee to discuss new rules that could be presented to the Legislature.

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