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Snowmachines and ATVs hitting the highway?: Proposed changes need closer scrutiny for safety

News-Miner opinion: Imagine it is a frigid, wintery day in Fairbanks. It is dark and there is lousy visibility. You are driving on Airport Way in heavy traffic when you realize there are snowmachines driven by teenagers on the highway with you, zooming in an out of the 45 mph traffic, endangering themselves and other drivers.

It scares you senseless, you say. It should, and it could become reality if a proposal by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration to allow all-terrain vehicles, snowmachines and “all purpose vehicles” on roads with speed limits as high as 45 mph is adopted.

The vehicles would be required to have a headlight, a red stop-signal light and red reflector. Under proposed changes to Alaska Administrative Code, snowmachine and ATV drivers would have to be licensed and carry insurance before hitting the highway.

It now is illegal to operate those vehicles on state roadways, and the suggested change would allow municipalities to opt out. The vehicles now can be used on highway shoulders only to cross highways or traverse a bridge or culvert.

While the administration is not saying much about the idea — even remaining mum abut whose idea it was — until the public comment period is over, Dunleavy on Facebook said, the change would “provide Alaskans the greatest opportunity to safely and affordably travel throughout the state.”

Using such vehicles in rural Alaska, where many use them as transportation instead of cars or trucks, is nearly a way of life already, but is it wise in crowded urban settings, in neighborhoods or on busy highways? It is hard to believe that it is, especially considering Alaska’s high rate of injury and death for such vehicles. Between 2007 and 2011, Alaska posted among the highest ATV rider death rates on public roads in the nation.

Then there is this from Nathan Belz, an off-highway vehicle safety researcher and professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who said, “these changes to the Alaska Administrative Code are poorly crafted, ill-advised, dangerous and have significant implications on the safety of the public.”

While we support the idea of allowing snowmachines and other off-road vehicle to reach established trails or cross highways, allowing them to travel on public roadways is something that should be discussed at great length.

You can give your opinion on the proposal to the Department of Administration until April 15, and the Department of Public Safety comment deadline ends April 18. The email address to submit comments is dps.awt.directors.office@alaska.gov.

The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at newsminer.com. Contact the editor with questions at letters@newsminer.com or call 459-7574.

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Guidelines

The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at newsminer.com. Contact the editor with questions at letters@newsminer.com or call 459-7574.

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