For several years, Arizona has had a law that, unlike many other laws whose hifalutin-sounding names have nothing to do with what they’re about, has one of the clearest names: the Stupid Motorist Law.
As I once poetically remarked on a local public-affairs show when the law was first proposed, it says that if you choose to float your car, you’ll pay the man who wears the star. (Apologies to Texaco).
Anyone who ignores clearly posted signs and drives around barricades blocking access to a flooded wash and finds his or her vehicle is not amphibious can be charged for the cost of his or her rescue.
Since seven people have been rescued in two days last week from Valley mountain trails, as ABC15’s Brian Webb reported in the Tribune, it’s led to speculation that perhaps Arizona also needs a Stupid Hiker Law.
Webb reported that ABC15’s check of public records found that the average rescue runs about $7,500 in taxpayer dollars — helicopter costs not included — taken from a state fund into which $200,000 is appropriated each year to foot the bills for such rescue efforts on mountainsides. In 2010, Webb reported 152 such rescues were conducted.
In many cases, otherwise well-equipped and prepared hikers are unexpectedly injured through purely accidental means. But in others, a decided lack of brains was the cause: attempting a three-hour hike in 110-degree heat while carrying only a pint of water, for example. Or sprained or broken ankles resulting from the bizarre conclusion that that same pair of sneakers you use for pickup basketball at the local park are just fine for scaling steep, craggy desert peaks.
On the one hand, first responders come to our aid in any number of situations where personal responsibility was notably absent. People run out of gas in remote areas despite a clearly readable “E” staring them right in the face from the dashboard as they were passing a gas station.
But such calls seldom cost taxpayers anything close to what flooded-wash and mountain-trail rescues cost. And this doesn’t mention the danger to the first responders who conduct trail rescues, who despite training, must brave difficult, narrow spaces — occasionally in the dark — to bring themselves and an injured hiker on a stretcher down from a mountain.
Webb reported those helped from these trails have been charged for helicopters used to rescue them, as well as the ambulance and medical bills everyone in any kind of accident would be expected to pay.
But what about that $7,500 approximate cost to taxpayers that these people are not charged? Webb reports firefighters’ usual explanation that if these folks know they’ll be handed a hefty bill, their concern for their wallets may lead them to decide not to call for help, meaning first responders might have a more complicated situation later.
True enough. But helicopter flights cost plenty — perhaps at least $7,500 — and many hikers are getting billed for it. Anyone who has been following the cost of health care in recent years knows how much ambulances, hospitals and doctors charge.
But that’s not deterring people from calling 911 when they’re stuck on a mountain.
There is the slippery-slope argument that’s important here: If police and firefighters start billing people for responding to the painful results of their own stupidity, can that criterion be applied to, say, residents of a household who left their front door unlocked, allowing burglars easy access to their TV, computer and jewelry?
Or a guy who got robbed walking through one of the worst neighborhoods in town at midnight, because that’s the time he decided to thumb through a stack of $100 bills while loudly signing, “We’re in the Money”?
Of course, in each of those instances, we have the right — as inadvisable as it is — to leave a door unlocked or stroll through bad neighborhoods late at night. We don’t have the right to blow past legal warning signs as we assure ourselves that they are meant for other people, not special folks like us.
A reasonable solution? Signs clearly posted at every public park or preserve where people hike mountain trails that clearly warn about the dangers of insufficient preparation and give the potential cost of the rescue of anyone who ignores those warnings.
Face it: Signs that say, “Keep America Beautiful” are nowhere as effective as “No Littering, $500 fine” in truly keeping America beautiful. In that sense, our first responders have the right idea, only that we should get hikers to think of their wallets before, not after, they get into trouble.
Read Tribune contributing columnist Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here each weekend. Reach him at email@example.com.