Safety, responsibility should prevail in lieu of meaningful laws

Posted: Sunday, February 18, 2001

How far should government go to protect people from risky behaviors? Are attempts to legislate common sense ever fruitful? When a person's behavior puts only himself or herself at risk, is it different than if that behavior has the potential to endanger others? Are laws needed to protect children who may not realize their behavior could harm themselves or others?

Those are the kinds of philosophical questions that are at the crux of debates over how far government powers should go. At this time of year, when countless Alaskans are on their snowmachines and snowmachine deaths in the state are at a near record, that debate becomes very specific: Is snowmachine-safety legislation needed?

As a recent story from The Associated Press noted, Alaska has no helmet law, no required operator training, no minimum age requirement to drive or ride a snowmachine, no state speed limits, no formal trail system and a per capita snowmachine death rate five times higher than any other state.

Nevertheless, the pervasive Alaska less-government-is-better-government attitude means that Alaskans aren't knocking down their legislators' doors in droves, demanding laws aimed at reducing snowmachine deaths and injuries.

In a perfect world, people would always do the right and safe thing, even as it pertains to an activity like snowmachining. In the real world, people don't always know the right and safe thing to do, or they ignore the right and safe thing to do, or they underestimate the dangers of what they are doing, or they believe those terrible things that happen to other people will never happen to them.

The Kenai Peninsula Safe Kids Coalition has taken a pragmatic approach to snowmachine safety. It recognizes that snowmachining is a part of Alaskans' lifestyle -- part of how residents of all ages play and work, how many Alaskans get around at this time of year.

The coalition is a children's injury prevention group. Members know children ride and will continue to ride snowmachines, particularly if there is no minimum age requirement legislation in place. In an effort to reduce deaths and injuries due to snowmachining, however, the coalition has developed a program to make parents and their children aware of the risks they are taking when they snowmachine and the steps they can take to reduce deaths and injuries on snowmachines.

That such information is desired -- that peninsula residents want to do the right and safe thing when they snowmachine -- is evidenced in the large turnout the coalition had at its children's snowmachine safety awareness program earlier this month at Soldotna Middle School. Two hundred and fifty children, plus their parents, attended.

A wealth of information was available, children could participate in an outdoor obstacle course, and helmets could be purchased for $20.

Armed with the right facts, people can make wiser, and consequently safer, decisions regarding their behavior, including snowmachining. Among some of the important information the Safe Kids coalition provided at its snowmachine safety event:

Parents must determine whether a child is physically and mentally able to drive or ride a snowmachine. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that youths be at least 16 years old to drive a snowmachine and children under the age of 6 not ride as passengers.

Issues a parent should consider before allowing a child to ride or drive include: the ability of a child to reach and operate all controls while comfortably seated; the strength of a child to operate the controls without straining; the child's peripheral vision; the child's coordination; the child's ability to understand and repeat from memory a five-step process; the child's ability to recognize hazards, respond appropriately and stay calm; the child's level of responsibility; and the availability of an adult to supervise each and every ride.

Adults should always model safe snowmachine behaviors, including driving the appropriate speed, showing respect for other trail users, wearing an approved helmet, checking weather and terrain conditions before riding, and never riding alone.

n The snowmachine should be the right size for the driver. It should be in good working order.

Snowmachiners should know the rules for safe riding, including riding in appropriate areas.

The list goes one. The point is there's a lot more to snowmachining safely than just getting on and taking off. Snowmachines are not toys, and they should not be treated as toys.

Adults who oppose legislation aimed at snowmachine safety should keep children in mind. No one wants their child to be hurt. The way to prevent injuries and deaths on snowmachines is to be armed with the facts to make wise decisions. Just because there is no law prohibiting children from driving or riding on a snowmachine, doesn't mean it's a safe thing to do.

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