Snowmachine license bill clears first committee

Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- A bill removing a requirement that people have a license to drive a snowmachine cleared its first committee this week.

The bill, approved by the House Transportation Committee on Thursday, would repeal a requirement that hasn't been enforced and that most Alaskans didn't know existed until this year.

''I don't feel that it's a necessary government function to require a license to operate a snowmachine, particularly when it's on an off-road, rural area,'' Committee Chairman Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, said.

Spokesmen at the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation said earlier this year they had only recently become aware of the law. They produced a brochure listing the license requirement, which led to news coverage and caused some parents to be alarmed that their children were violating the law.

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.

Jim Jansen of Anchorage said the current law makes outlaws out of his son, who cannot obtain a license because of epilepsy, and an 11-year-old family friend, both of whom ride with a small group in a remote mountain area.

''I think snowmachining in the winter is one of the greatest outdoor adventures we have,'' Jansen said.

Others, though, urged the committee to use the bill to make snowmachining safer.

Nancy Hillstrand of Homer said she wrecked her truck a couple of weeks ago trying to avoid a couple of kids snowmaching ''at least 80 miles an hour.''

''Maybe they shouldn't be exempt from having a driver's license,'' Hillstrand said. ''Maybe they should have a certificate of some sort that would be put into the schools where they have to learn safety issues.''

Rep. Mary Kapsner, D-Bethel, said she sympathized with those concerns, but in Bush Alaska snowmachines are used for transportation, not recreation.

Making it illegal for young people to drive them would pose a hardship for Bush families, she said. Kids use snowmachines to pack water, dump honeybuckets or go hunting.

''Our young people become adults very fast in rural Alaska,'' Kapsner said. ''We need them to help us with the work, just like on farms.''

Stan Justice of Fairbanks, however, said if exceptions are needed in Bush Alaska, that could be included in the law.

He argued the Legislature needs to address snowmachine safety, including age limits and speed limits. Thirty-two people died in snowmachine accidents last year, including a 13-year-old whose body he helped retrieve after an avalanche, he said.

''To remove the age limit in the face of a high death and accident rate is irresponsible,'' Justice said.

But Rep. Bev Masek, R-Willow, said the bill shouldn't be used for anything other than clearing up the license requirement. If other issues need to be addressed, they can be taken care of in other bills, she said.

The measure that passed the Transportation Committee also makes clear that drivers licenses are not required for other off-road vehicles.

House Bill 397 now goes to the State Affairs Committee.

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