Editorial: Tragedy may bring needed regulations
The problem with lax regulations is that often it takes a tragedy to get them changed.
Such is the case with the death of 15-year-old Hadley-Luzerne student Hunter Scofield, who died last weekend in the crash of a bus transporting him and 31 customers of a North Country rafting company to a drop-in point along the Hudson River.
The tragedy shines a spotlight on not only the regulations relating to the buses that transport customers to rafting sites, but also on the drivers of those buses and on whether the rafting industry itself needs more government scrutiny in order to protect public safety.
One issue that arose from the bus crash was whether such buses are inspected frequently enough.
The driver had claimed that the brakes on the 25-year-old retired school bus had failed (it turns out they hadn't), prompting officials to look into whether the buses receive adequate inspections.
Under state law, the vehicles used to transport rafters to the rivers are inspected once per year under the state Department of Motor Vehicles, even though they often carry the same number of passengers as other large-scale vehicles like school buses.
School buses and other buses that charge for service are inspected at least twice per year under a different set of rules by the state Department of Transportation.
While a second inspection might not have prevented this tragedy, the fact that the issue was raised by it could help prevent another bus crash directly related to mechanical failure.
Another issue this tragedy brings attention to is the safety of commercial rafting itself. Even though this fatality had nothing to do with on-water activities, it has prompted state and industry officials to examine whether more controls need to be in place regarding the qualifications of guides and other matters.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation issues licenses for guides engaged in casual rafting and whitewater rafting on 10 specific stretches of river in the state, including the area served by many of the North Country commercial rafting companies.
Legislation drafted by state Sen. Elizabeth Little during the last legislative session (S.6663) would have amended state environmental conservation law to tighten up regulations on guides, including providing tougher sanctions for rafting companies and for guides who are intoxicated or otherwise unprepared to safely transport the public.
The bill didn't have an Assembly sponsor and was not enacted into law. This tragedy should garner the bill extra attention during the next legislative session.
Another thing the state should look at in light of this crash is the qualifications of the drivers of the transport vehicles. These vehicles are often large, carry dozens of passengers and traverse rough roads through the woods. The driver in the fatal crash was 77 years old. Whether his age played a factor or not hasn't been determined, but the tragedy raises questions about the fitness of the drivers of these vehicles nonetheless.
Since we're on the topic of water sports for hire, the tragedy also might encourage the government to take a closer look at other lightly regulated industries like parasailing, a popular activity on Lake George in which people harnessed to parachutes are pulled hundreds of feet into the air by a boat. Like rafting, this is another commercial activity with a rather strong safety record. But a lot could go wrong, and this should prompt a review of safety regulations there, as well.
There are many potential dangers in such ventures, both on the water and on the land, that otherwise would have continued to escape tighter scrutiny.
Unfortunately, it took the death of a 15-year-old boy to draw our attention to them.