JUNEAU (AP) -- A bill that would eliminate the need for a license to drive a snowmachine passed the House on Wednesday.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, said current law makes criminals out of people enjoying winter recreation with their families and Bush residents who depend on snowmachines for basic travel.
Rep. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, objected to the change, saying it would make it legal for a 4-foot-tall child to operate a machine capable of going 100 miles per hour.
The law has seldom been enforced, and few people even knew it existed until a state brochure listing the requirement prompted news coverage of the issue.
''That caught a lot of people by surprise because many, including myself, didn't know this was on the books,'' Kohring said.
The minimum age for a driver's license in Alaska is 16. That means many children who now ride snowmachines do so illegally.
Kohring said a driver's license -- which tests knowledge of rules of the road and ability to operate a car or truck -- doesn't necessarily equate to ability to operate a snowmachine safely.
''It's like an apples and oranges comparison,'' he said.
Bunde asked Kohring if he knew how many people were killed in snowmachine and all-terrain vehicle accidents.
Kohring said he didn't know.
''I was afraid that would be the answer,'' Bunde said.
He said later that a constituent who is a physician said the fatality rate for operating snowmachines and all-terrain vehicles is about 10 times that of automobiles.
The bill also removes a requirement for a driver's license to operate an all-terrain vehicle, boat, aircraft or other vehicle not designed for highway use.
''Are we encouraging more people to kill and injure themselves by passing this law?'' Bunde asked. ''I think that's a question we have to ask ourselves.''
Kohring said a snowmachine advisory group is working with state agencies on safety issues and may come back with regulations or proposed legislation.
Representatives from Bush Alaska said keeping the law in place imposes too great a burden in their communities.
Children need to use the machines for family chores, and even adults have trouble getting driver's licenses because few Division of Motor Vehicles offices exist in rural Alaska, said Rep. Mary Kapsner, D-Bethel.
''Our snowmachines are like a family Suburban,'' she said.
The bill passed 34-3, with Reps. Sharon Cissna, D-Anchorage; John Davies, D-Fairbanks; and Bunde voting no. Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, gave notice he may bring the bill up for reconsideration Thursday.
If the outcome does not change, the bill will next go to the Senate for consideration.
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