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ATV Safety Bill May Get Stricter; Sponsor Mulls Age Requirement

By Jeff Jones
Journal Staff Writer
    State Sen. Dede Feldman is threatening to take the gloves off in her fight to pass a New Mexico all-terrain-vehicle safety bill.
    Feldman, an Albuquerque Democrat, said Saturday she is prepared to introduce a stripped-down and possibly stricter version.
    One factor in her decision will be whether a group of off-road enthusiasts continues what she believes is its opposition to the current bill, she said in an interview Saturday.
    " ... They are opposing the bill and asking for things that even the industry that produces these vehicles is not in favor of," Feldman said. She said the opposition is coming from the New Mexico Off Highway Vehicle Alliance, an organization of off-road vehicle users.
    The president of that alliance, Joanne Spivack of Albuquerque, insisted in another interview Saturday that her group supports Feldman's current bill. However, Spivack did have critical words for the measure during a Senate Finance Committee hearing at the Capitol on Saturday and spoke during a time slot set aside for bill opponents.
    "I think I was misconstrued as speaking against (it)," Spivack said afterward. "I should have prefaced by saying, 'I stand in support of the bill.' ''
    The current bill would require, among other things, youth ATV riders to take training classes and wear helmets. It would also ban adults from carrying a passenger on ATVs not specifically designed for such use and impose fees of up to $47 every two years. The current three-year registration costs $15, but thousands of owners simply aren't registering.
    But, in addition to beefing up safety, Feldman's bill also offers a carrot to ATVers: Part of those new fees would be used to create new ATV play areas around New Mexico.
    In what was clearly a warning to opponents, Feldman said she would draft a new measure containing only safety provisions, trimming away the fees and the statewide ATV play areas.
    She said she might also include new, stricter wording that would make it illegal for children under age 12 to drive any size ATV.
    The new bill would be more in line with what many doctors and safety experts want and would surely be opposed by Spivack's group, Feldman said.
    The New Mexico Off Highway Vehicle Alliance has said it would prefer that the current bill be stripped of language banning ATV passengers.
    Most machines aren't designed for passengers and carry prominent stickers warning against the practice.
    And nationwide, thousands of ATV passengers have ended up in emergency rooms.
    The ATV industry itself supports Feldman's current bill, as does Gov. Bill Richardson.
    During Saturday's Senate Finance Committee hearing, Spivack said that, while much of the debate on the measure has focused on the safety of children on ATVs, the bill also affects adults.
    "It limits their freedom of making their own decisions, and we object to that," Spivack told the committee.
    Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Sandia Park, said she likes the part of the bill that requires young riders to wear helmets, but she is concerned about the fees.
    "I could support the bill better if we had a nominal fee," she said.
    Sen. Carroll Leavell, R-Jal, said he couldn't support the bill because his constituents don't.
    "From my district, my mail and e-mail has been about 10 to 1," he said.
    He also said he was concerned about the fees, saying, "This thing has some very necessary safety items, but the rest of the bill is unpalatable."
    The finance committee took no action Saturday because not enough members were present.
    The group is expected to take the matter up again on Monday.
    Although the deadline to introduce new bills passed last week, Feldman said she can introduce a new, no-fee version via a committee substitute or through a "dummy bill"— essentially a blank bill that was introduced and given a bill number before the deadline passed.
    Feldman said she might withhold her decision on introducing the new bill until the Senate Finance Committee votes on the current bill.
   
Journal Capitol Bureau reporter Kate Nash contributed to this report.