Experts question Dunleavy plan to expand snow machine, ATV use on roads

The Kuskokwim River in front of Bethel on December 21, 2017. (Katie Basile / KYUK)

The Dunleavy administration is taking public comment on a statewide proposal to make it legal to drive all-terrain vehicles and snow machines on roads with speed limits of 45 mph or less, a proposal some fear would increase accidents on state roads.

The administration declined a request to comment on the proposal, but in a Facebook post, the governor said the change would “provide Alaskans the greatest opportunity to safely and affordably travel throughout the state.”

University of Alaska Fairbanks Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Nathan Belz was part of a partially-state funded study looking at off-highway vehicle safety in Alaska.

Belz said the crash data was revealing.

“25% of all OHV accidents in the state that were documented in the Alaska Trauma Registry happened on roads,” he said. “It’s about 20% for snowmobiles.”

Belz said 20% of all the OHV and snow machine accidents involve drivers under 16, an important factor given what the Dunleavy administration is proposing.

“These changes to the Alaska Administrative Code as proposed don’t have limits on operator age. So now we’re going to be mixing in operators of these modes that should be abiding by, you know, general traffic laws that haven’t even taken a driver’s education course,” he said.

Belz called the proposal ill-advised and dangerous.

Fairbanks Area Surface Transportation Planning Executive Director Jackson Fox noted cities, like Fairbanks and North Pole, could change local laws to ban snow machines and OHVs from their roads.

But “the problem exists beyond city limits. The Fairbanks North Star Borough doesn’t have road powers and they don’t have an enforcement arm,” he said.

Fox said the state proposal runs counter to an Alaska Highway Safety Office strategic plan.

“Measures included in that plan improve the safety on our roadways, specifically related to snow machines and off-highway vehicles,” he said.

Fox said his organization is planning on preparing a comment letter on the state proposal. Professor Belz suggested the state form a stakeholder group to look at the issue.

The Department of Administration is accepting comments on the proposal until April 15, and the Department of Public Safety comment deadline closes April 18.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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