When skepticism turns into silliness

The Yukon has a sprawling 8,400 kilometres of road. In a territory with fewer than 140 Mounties, perhaps it's time to ask whether it's the best use of tax dollars to enforce motor vehicle regulations.

The Yukon has a sprawling 8,400 kilometres of road. In a territory with fewer than 140 Mounties, perhaps it’s time to ask whether it’s the best use of tax dollars to enforce motor vehicle regulations.

As it stands, what are the odds that police are able to catch scofflaws, with such a vast area to patrol? And how is it fair that law-abiding drivers must go through the nuisance of having vehicles registered and bearing license plates?

Surely dangerous drivers are just a few bad apples. So let’s chuck out the entire registration and licensing system, throw our hands up in the air, and ask the Mounties to give up on enforcing the law on our roads.

While we’re at it, we could tear up our wildlife regulations. What’s the point of having hunting rules when there’s so much wilderness, and so few conservation officers? Enforcing these rules could cost a fortune. Are we to have a CO hide behind every bush? And how is it fair that lawful hunters face the hassle of paperwork and fees, while those bad apples carry on as they would?

We could carry on, but you probably get the sense these questions are being posed in jest. All the above objections, slightly tweaked, are the indignant replies now being heard in response to proposals to regulate all-terrain vehicle use in Yukon’s backcountry. The point here is that if we applied the same unreasonably high standards now being used to argue against ATV regulation to other areas of law, we wouldn’t have many rules on the books, period.

In reality, nobody expects police to catch every drunk driver. Nor do we expect conservation officers to catch everyone who hunts an animal out of season. The fact that justice is not always seen when these laws are broken, however, does not support the notion that drunk driving bans and hunting restrictions shouldn’t exist.

Laws, in these cases, help signal to all citizens what rules we expect to be followed for our collective well-being. Enforcement is necessarily spotty, but the occasionally splashy bust, and the accompanying punishment, hopefully sends a message to most people that the pain of being caught out-weights the nuisance of following the rules.

Drunk driving and poaching of course remain problems in the Yukon, but nobody pretends that the laws against these activities are useless.

Why, then, all the huff about potentially having to register and plate an ATV? People currently have to do the same for boat trailers, and you don’t see any angry letters to the editor about that. (In B.C., which passed new ATV legislation earlier this year, riders must pay a one-time $48 registration fee.)

It’s common to hear that the ugly damage being done to Yukon’s backcountry by ATV riders is the fault of a small, irresponsible group. Whether this is true or not, one thing is clear: residents who are fighting against making ATVs clearly identifiable for law enforcement purposes are effectively supporting these bad apples, by helping to ensure scofflaws won’t get caught.

Much is made of the cost of enforcement. Funny how this objection isn’t applied to existing conservation officer responsibilities. Apparently it’s worthwhile to try to stop people from shooting endangered caribou herds. Why not, then, similarly try to protect fragile wetlands from a growing web of mud ruts that will take decades to heal, by declaring certain sensitive areas off-limits, and then enforcing this ban?

Just as conservation officers are frequently aided by citizens who report hunting violations, the same could be done with ATV enforcement. Residents with satellite phones could report offences, or even snap photos with GPS-tagging cameras of offenders caught in the act. This already happens elsewhere.

Another objection is that bad guys will just splash mud over their plates. Well, fine: make it an offence to obscure your license plate, as it is with motor vehicles on roads. Will some knuckleheads succeed in evading the law? Sure – and such will always be the case. But others will be caught, and their punishment will help deter future damage.

Education efforts obviously play a role in residents learning to lessen the impact of riding ATVs in the wilderness. But you need to live in a fantasy land to believe that alone will solve the problem. If that’s how the world worked, we wouldn’t need the aforementioned laws against drunk driving and poaching.

Yukoners face a choice. They can stick with the status quo, which is to allow Yukon’s hinterland to continue to be chewed up by irresponsible ATV riders. Or we can get serious about fixing the problem – and that means creating rules and ensuring it’s possible to enforce them, however selectively. Putting plates on vehicles is a necessary part of that. To pretend otherwise is just silly.

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