August 14, 2013LANCASTER — "I want to hear about your aspirations and concerns," Executive Councilor Ray Burton explained after he thanked members of the region's law enforcement community for coming to Monday morning's informational meeting that he organized.
Burton introduced Director Peter Thomson, who for 21 years has headed up the N.H. Highway Safety Agency and two members of his six-person department: northern Field Representative Steve Sargent and southern Field Representative John Clegg, both grant-writers. Both these state employees, who prepare equipment and special project grant applications to tap nearly $3 million in federal funds, have helped secure in-cruiser cameras, radar enforcement patrols, and speed surveillance trailers.
Coös County Sheriff Jerry Marcou identified law enforcement's greatest new concern as 4-wheelers legally using state highways, including in Berlin-Gorham, Colebrook-Pittsburg, and Lancaster.
"It's like the Wild West up here — anything goes!" the sheriff exclaimed.
He certainly appreciates the economic boost that the "Ride the Trails" effort could give to the county, but, he said, he fears that having 12-year-olds on the paved roads would almost inevitably result in a serious accident or possibly a preventable death.
"It's a good idea, but there are problems," the sheriff said.
"Originally in Pittsburg the idea behind using paved town and state roads was to connect the trails, but now it has turned into supporting businesses," Lapoint explained, noting that this includes allowing 61-inch-wide side-by-sides in Coös. The chief favors only allowing OHRV operators with licenses or OHRV certificates to drive on highways and not 12-, 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds.
After all, Lapoint said, drivers with learner's permits can't practice their skills on roads until they are 15½.
Twelve-year-old snowmobilers can't legally cross highways, another chief pointed out.
Pittsburg has opened up almost all of its town roads to OHRVs, he said. Even Tall Timbers, which argued against opening the town up to ATVs, said their presence has been an economic driver.
None of the three men in the state Highway Safety Agency were aware of recent changes in the specific laws governing the size and use of ATVs and OHRVs in Coös County. "This is news to us," said Sargent.
Small signs, suitable for woods riding, are nowhere near large enough to attract the attention of ATV enthusiasts, Cass said, adding that he spends time leading lost drivers to trailheads.
Some places in the county are marking sidewalks as ATV trails; others, gravel shoulders, and yet others, including Berlin and Gorham, are allowing OHRVs to drive with the flow of traffic.
Local law enforcement officers urged that OHRV rules be standardized, including the hours of operation and the age at which it is legal to drive on roads and highways.
All law enforcement officers, except Bethlehem's chief, whose jurisdiction is in Grafton County, reported that citizens are complaining about OHRVs. On recent weekend, Fish and Game had angry citizens complaining about locals racing up and down roads at 1 a.m., for example, Lucas said. "There're complaints every day in Pittsburg," he added.
Another concern is that apparently some believe that once a road or highway is designated as "open" to OHRV travel, then it becomes part of the "trail," putting riders under DRED's $2 million liability insurance policy.
One problem, Lapoint said, is that OHRV manufacturers state quite clearly that their machines are not designed for highway use.
Burton suggested that the Sheriff's Department apply for a Highway Safety grant so his Department could set up patrols at "hot spots." Marcou said that on the whole he and his officers are not knowledgeable about all the laws that they would be expected to enforce.
The sheriff also urged that the law under which Fish and Game conservation officers operate should be amended — as soon as possible — to give them the authority to enforce laws on state highways — and not just in the woods.
Turning to other topics, Lapoint said that many sections of Route 3 are in really abysmal shape with grass growing in cracks.
Burton said he had noticed on a tour of state liquor stores that the stretch of Route 3 on which Young's Store is located is in terrible teeth-rattling shape.
Burton said that he still supports raising state revenues by legalizing a single casino and raising the state gasoline tax.
Cass said that the state's mental health is "absolutely horrible," partially due to the closing down the psychiatric beds in the Androscoggin Valley Hospital, and that the court system, including its lack of support for bail commissioners, is not geared up to handle the load.
As he wrapped up the two-hour meeting, Burton thanked everyone urging them all "to be proud of what you do."