Legal Insights

‘Stupid hiker law’ being touted as an Arizona must-have

By: June 1, 2016

As Arizona hits its hottest temperatures of the year, it once again is time for the annual outcry for some non-specific law that would force hikers to pay for their rescues off of Phoenix-area trails. Though the actual scope of the law is rarely if ever specifically defined, those in favor of it are quick with a name: the “Stupid Hiker Law.”

Before rushing to judgment, it is important to understand, and perhaps even define, what behavior the law would seek to punish. Arizona’s Stupid Motorist Law is often held out as the prime example of what a hiker law would look like. There are real differences, however, between the behavior that the very specific Stupid Motorist Law punishes and what a similarly called hiker law seeks to penalize.

The Stupid Motorist Law has been in place for more than two decades. Whether prosecutors rely on it regularly or not, its name alone serves as a warning to Arizona drivers not to drive into flooded roadways. Specifically, the law provides the basis for the recovery of rescue expenses against a driver who (i) drives around a “Road Closed” barricade, (ii) drives into water that is covering the roadway, and (iii) becomes stranded and needs to be rescued.

What would a similar hiker law look like?

Central Arizona alone is home to dozens of hiking trails of all skill levels at the state, county and city levels. These parks and preserves cover tens of thousands of acres and hundreds of miles of trails, with dozens of trail heads and entry and exit points. There are also hundreds and hundreds of miles of hiking trails located within Arizona, but outside of Central Arizona.

So questions must be asked: Can someone get the signs in place to close hundreds of miles of trails? Would the local, county or state governments overseeing their parks need to put a barrier on each and every trailhead and entry / exit point stating “Trail Closed”? Would that even be possible?

What is the danger that is being avoided? The Stupid Motorist Law requires that someone drive around a road closed sign AND into water before that person can be held liable for any resulting rescue. The danger being avoided is a flooded roadway.

As such, any hiking law specifically modeled after the Stupid Motorist Law seemingly would need to identify the danger. On Arizona’s hiking trails, there are many such dangers. Obviously, hot conditions can cause a problem. However, there are mountain rescues related to heat and hiker exhaustion in the winter months, just as there are in summer months. Is the goal to discourage hikers who can are overcome by heat at 100 degrees? 105 degrees? 110 degrees? 115 degrees? Go to any trail in Central Arizona when the temperature hits any of these marks, and you will find dozens, even hundreds, of hikers going up and down the trails all day long, with no problems.

It is probably not fair or appropriate to look at specific recent tragedies to justify enacting or not enacting a hiker law. It is important to note, however, that when reviewing news reports of rescues going back several years that injuries of all types can befall anyone. Experienced, long-time hikers can find themselves in need of medical attention on the hottest days, and novices may need to seek help on days when the temperature barely climbs over 70 degrees – or vice-versa.

It is not just the temperature that can lead to rescues.  There also are numerous other risks associated with hiking desert mountains and preserves. Aggressive bee attacks have been reported. There are, of course, snakes. Monsoon storms bring dust, heavy winds, rain and lightning, all of which contribute to rescues. The trails themselves often have loose impediments that lead to turned ankles, and, therefore, rescues. Should trails be closed down to avoid these dangers as well?

Surely, there are ways that lawmakers can draft an enforceable law to require hikers to pay for their rescues. But they need to make it clear and specific. Hikers need to know exactly when they might be in violation of any such law. And don’t punish true accidents. It is important that everyone involved in such legislation think through what the law will actually look like, whom it will impact, and what conduct it is trying to eliminate.