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ATV helmet law gets traction

Every politician in the Yukon's legislative assembly appears to support a helmet law for offroad vehicles, with one exception: Brad Cathers, the independent MLA for Lake Laberge.

Every politician in the Yukon’s legislative assembly appears to support a helmet law for offroad vehicles, with one exception: Brad Cathers, the independent MLA for Lake Laberge.

“I’m a believer in individual freedom, not in government taking the attitude that people are too stupid to live their own lives,” said Cathers, in an interview.

He knows that it’s smart to wear a helmet. He always does when he rides his snowmobile.

But Cathers knows of trappers, rangers and hunters who are reluctant to don helmets while riding snowmobiles and ATVs because they find their glasses fog up, impeding their vision.

Some mushers, who use four-wheelers to train dogs during the warm months, also prefer to ride along roads without helmets, so as to better hear nearby traffic.

Still others object that a helmet shouldn’t be required for someone using a quad to clear snow from a driveway, because they’re not in big danger of taking a serious spill.

But all three of Yukon’s political parties support a helmet law for offroad vehicles. So does Chris May, president of the Yukon Offroad Riders Association.

Cyclists and motorbike riders must wear helmets, said May. Why not snowmobilers and ATVs riding along the road, “just because they’re in the ditch?”

Every jurisdiction in Canada has a motorized vehicle helmet law, either in place or in the works, except for the Yukon, said May.

Head injuries are far graver than many people realize, he said. Broken bones heal, but brain injuries are often permanent.

Most ATV users support a helmet law, according to a survey conducted by an all-party committee that last week released a report on ATV use.

It found a helmet law was supported by 80 per cent of urban respondents and 64 per cent of rural respondents.

Broken down another way, a helmet law is supported by 68 per cent of ATV users, 69 per cent of snowmobilers and 90 per cent of non-users.

The survey wasn’t statistically significant, said Cathers. He expressed concern that the phrasing of some questions may have confused respondents.

But May conducted a poll with his group’s members that found approximately 60 per cent supported a law requiring helmet-use, while 80 per cent supported a helmet law for youth.

Cathers’ opposition to a helmet law meant that no such recommendation was included in the offroad vehicle report.

But at least there’s consensus among the Yukon’s political parties. This became evident when Community Service Minister Archie Lang tabled a motion on the legislature’s last day, calling for such a law.

That surprised the NDP’s Steve Cardiff, who has called for an offroad vehicle helmet law for “years and years.”

The Yukon Party opposed a helmet law until recently, he said. “Basically, they said no, no, no. Now, all a sudden, they’re onside.”

But don’t expect a helmet law to be in place soon. It doesn’t appear as if there will be another sitting of the legislature before the next territorial election, which must be called by the autumn.

So it will probably be up to the next government to adopt a helmet law, and to interpret the report’s findings as it sees fit.

The big question remains whether the Yukon’s politicians have the stomachs to restrict ATV access to fragile habitats, such as alpine meadows and wetlands. Ugly scars left by ATV tires mar many once-pristine areas.

That led to the formation of Trails Only Yukon, which wants ATV users restricted to existing trails, and kept out of fragile environments.

The report does support the banning of vehicles from sensitive areas. But it doesn’t define what those areas are. That’s for experts to decide, said Don Inverarity, the Liberal member of the committee.

Those details will determine whether the proposed restrictions have any substance, or are mere window-dressing.

And, as it’s unlikely that the Yukon Party will devote more meetings to this controversy during the lead-up to an election, this will be a big decision to be made by the next government.

The report includes a recommendation, suggested by May, to create a simple law that bans environmental damage.

But there’s no report recommendation to require ATV users have their vehicles registered, licensed and insured. Without that, any enforcement efforts will prove difficult.

Cathers has cautioned that simply banning ATVs from sensitive areas could result in another nasty court battle between First Nation and the territorial government. One recent court decision upheld the rights of Yukon First Nation people to use ATVs within restricted areas of Kluane National Park for hunting, he said.

Better to set up special management areas in consultation with First Nations, such as what was done for the Nordenskiold River, he said.

Arguments made by both sides of the ATV debate are “closely tied to what Yukon means to each individual,” the report noted.

“For example, some view Yukon as the last frontier and want it to remain that way. For them it’s about protecting their personal rights and freedoms and having the ability to choose.

“Others see it as that pristine, untouched wilderness experience. For them it’s more about respect and the principle that Yukon belongs to all of us and must be protected for future generations.”

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