Should off-road vehicle users be required to wear helmets?
Should there be a minimum age to operate these vehicles?
Should fragile alpine areas be off-limits?
These and other divisive questions will be asked over the next 10 months by a touring committee of MLAs who will explore what, if any, restrictions ought to be imposed on the use of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.
There is bound to be plenty of disagreement. Even the MLAs who supported the motion, passed on November 18, don’t agree on much.
Leading the charge for greater regulation is the NDP’s Steve Cardiff, who for two years has asked the government to consider introducing a helmet requirement and age restriction on operating off-road vehicles.
Motorcyclists need to wear helmets, he notes. And he doubts a quad is any safer than a Harley. Yet a biker needs to wear a helmet, while an ATV rider does not.
Age restrictions are worth considering, too, said Cardiff, for the same reason that the Yukon is contemplating putting limits on child labour.
One justification for child labour laws is that young teens don’t yet have fully developed brains. That means they have difficulty assessing risks and considering the consequences of their actions, said Cardiff.
And he hopes that the off-road vehicle debate will touch on the damage that these vehicles have done to Yukon’s fragile alpine areas.
So far, the Yukon government has resisted calls to create no-go areas for off-road vehicles in places such as Pilot Mountain, where experts suggest the intrusion of ATVs has led to a decline in sheep numbers.
At the far side of the debate is Brad Cathers, the independent MLA for Lake Laberge. He supported the committee tour also, but he made it clear that he’s no fan of helmet requirements for off-road vehicles.
“People, including my own family, use them as working machines on a daily basis for everything from hauling supplies up to the boat to working around the yard in an area where the chances of running into other vehicles or other people is very limited,” said Cathers.
Off-road regulations are probably best left in the hands of municipalities, said Cathers. He notes that proposed changes to the Motor Vehicles Act allow local governments to create bylaws that govern off-road vehicles.
But Cardiff countered in an interview that it makes little sense to have a patchwork of different rules for off-road vehicles, rather than one consistent territorial law.
Encouraging common sense will likely save more lives than imposing a helmet law, said Cathers. He described how snowmobile daredevils flock to the White Pass and Haines summits each winter to try high-marking—a dangerous trick in which a rider tries to climb as high up a steep face as possible.
“A helmet will not save you in a great many of the situations where you can kill or injure yourself or others if you’re driving an ATV or a snow machine like an idiot,” said Cathers.
It will also be difficult to persuade many First Nation elders to don a helmet, he said. Or, for that matter, many riders who wear glasses.
“Anyone who has ever been out at minus 40, trying to wear a helmet, realizes that you are not going to be able to keep your glasses clear,” he said.
“Excessive regulation may make members feel good, but it will not address the root of the problem. There is no substitute for common sense.”
Maybe off-road vehicle users should be required to take a safety course, such as what’s required for users of recreational boats, suggested the Liberals’ Eric Fairclough.
He also shared an anecdote to illustrate the need for a minimum age requirement.
“As I was going through Rabbit’s Foot Canyon, the big hill there on the right as you go north, kids were going up with these snow machines and, coming down, one of them went out of control and started to roll.
“The kids jumped out of the way just in time and his machine rolled and rolled and rolled all the way down the hill. It was amazing that nobody got hurt there.”
Independent John Edzerza summed up the mixed feelings of many.
A friend of his died in a snowmobile accident. A nephew who was a promising hockey player was crippled by an ATV accident. And he worries whenever he sees teens riding off-road vehicles recklessly.
But he knows restrictions won’t be popular with many rural residents in his riding.
“A lot of people I know don’t like to wear helmets,” he said.
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