It may come as a surprise to Alaskans in love with backcountry motor sports, but in order for them to drive a snowmobile, boat or airplane anywhere but on private property, state law says they must have a valid Alaska driver's license.
It's a universally ignored statute, say Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, and other state lawmakers who have proposed a bill to eliminate the license requirement.
"It is ridiculous. ... What does passing a test to drive a car have to do with running a boat on a lake or river, flying a plane or riding an ATV while hunting?" Kohring said in a recent press release.
Since its introduction in early February, House Bill 397 has gone through a couple of revisions. It began life in as a one-line amendment adding snowmobile operators to a short list of persons exempted from licensing requirements.
The House Transportation Committee later substituted a version amending a different section of state law. By replacing the word highway with roadway and dumping language referring to other public property, the amendment effectively OK'd license-free vehicle operations everywhere except roads.
That version lasted long enough to take the bill to the House State Affairs Committee, where Tuesday a third version of the bill more akin to the first was introduced. It also included language regarding open alcohol containers. It is expected to move out of committee on Thursday.
The latest iteration exempts persons driving off-highway vehicles, watercraft, aircraft or other vehicles not designed for highway use from having to own a driver's license. It also defines where it is and is not legal to carry open containers of alcohol in those motor vehicles. For instance, it permits storing an open container in an enclosed storage area of a snowmobile.
The push to amend laws that essentially make violators of anyone driving a snowmobile, boat or plane without a driver's license began last year in the House Transportation Committee, said Michael Krieber, a Kohring aide. It was soon clear no one was enforcing the license law.
Testimony opposed requiring a license, especially in Bush Alaska, where snowmobiles and ATVs are more than recreational vehicles. In many areas, snowmobiles are the mode of transportation in the deep winter.
"Those who depend on snowmobiles, boats and ATVs for basic transportation to work, hunt and fish in many parts of Alaska need to have their rights protected," Kohring said. "This is just one example of government making laws just for the sake of making laws."
Krieber said the existence of the current law actually makes it illegal for someone in a motorized wheelchair to operate that device on sidewalks unless he or she has a valid driver's license. A youngster with a half-horsepower trolling motor on a canoe can't float down a state waterway without a license.
The law must be changed, he said.
"It comes back to are we encouraging people to break the law by ignoring a law on the books?" he said. "Is that the message? Let's make people legal."
The issue of licensing is independent of other off-road vehicle operation issues, such as safety. Jim Stratton, director of the state Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, said no one gave the license requirement much thought until the Department of Transportation began evaluating state statutes.
But there is a question about drivers under the age of 16, he said.
"Should there be a (snowmobile) certification course? That is a question that still needs to be addressed."
Many states have mandatory certification programs for snowmobile riders under the age of 16, Stratton said.
There has also been some talk about setting some age limit below which drivers must be accompanied by an adult, he said.
A group called the Snowmobile Trails Advisory Committee, or SnoTrac, is looking into licensing requirements and all the other rules regarding operation of snowmobiles with an eye toward cleaning up state statutes. Currently, references to snowmobiles in state law are spread throughout the code.
"It's hard for a lay person to figure out," Stratton said.
As for any reform of safety regulations, the public must get involved in the discussions, he added.
House Bill 397 doesn't address safety, but neither does it affect existing laws requiring the safe operation of off-road vehicles, such as having brake lights and turn signals when they are operated on the roads.
"We are not saying that off-road vehicle drivers should be allowed to operate unsafely," Kohring said. "Having a driver's license has nothing to do with safe operation of an off-road vehicle. We are saying that if safety is a concern, then let's focus on safety."
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