Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Sledders coast to victory

It’s nice when I can write a good-news story about local government, so I won’t pass up on this story.
Enjoy the winter, kids!
While some people chafe at rules and think government just wants to control and dominate us, I tend to look at the rationale behind rules and find that even if the rule doesn’t come out right, the motivation behind it is usually for our own good. And that’s the case behind sledding bans. On the one hand, they are meant to prevent injury, for the good of the citizens who might otherwise get injured. On the other, they are meant to protect taxpayers from having to fund huge liability awards, as was the case in Hamilton when the City had to pay $900,000, out of public funds, to cover a tobogganing injury in a city park. A figure like that makes not only that city, but others in the province, sit up and take notice. Some go as far as to enact bylaws banning tobogganing on public land.
So it was that the City of Barrie, wanting to avoid similar claims, put up signs at various times and locations to warn against sledding. Their concern makes perfect sense. The only problem was the wording used, which took the form “The City DOES NOT PERMIT…” Now, in literal terms, this is correct, in that the city does not issue sledding permits: you don’t get a toboggan license like you would get a dog license or a fishing license, and the City doesn’t create specific sledding hills or check and maintain any hills for safe sledding. So they don’t “permit” it.
However, in layman’s terms, “does not permit” means “forbids” or “prohibits”. Which means that schools and other responsible authorities are likely to treat this as a ban, and obviously can’t allow, much less encourage, their charges to break such a rule.
Yet what the City really wanted to convey was that if you sled, you are doing so at your own risk, and if you hurt yourself doing it, don’t blame (or sue) the City. And that’s perfectly fair; we should be able to make informed decisions about risk and assume our own risk and take the consequences.
So the wording was causing some confusion, and this is where the good news comes in: when the issue came to their attention, Barrie’s City Council sprang into action and fixed it, immediately! Councillor Arif Khan presented a motion to change the wording, with Mayor Jeff Lehman’s support, and the rest of Council voted unanimously in favour. Within weeks, the wording on all these signs will be updated from “the City does not permit” to “the City does not maintain … use at own risk”.
And that’s good for several reasons. It frees schools from having to keep kids off public sledding hills at recess. But perhaps better, since kids are going to sled on good hills after hours regardless of signage, it avoids teaching them to ignore rules and bans. Now, instead of sledding under a “no sledding” sign, they will instead be reading a sign that says it’s okay to sled if they feel the risk is acceptable. They will be learning the principle of assessing risk for themselves. And that’s perhaps one of the most important lessons of childhood activities.

Published as my root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "City's sign switch offers valuable lesson". See also coverage of this issue by Cheryl Browne here. All of this is a follow-up to a previous column
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

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