Whenever I talk to older, non-skateboarders about the fact that I, A) skate in the street and B) never wear a helmet, they show a mom-type mixture of surprise, fear, and disappointment. People who have never skated assume that skateboarding is unavoidably dangerous, like playing chicken with a train or shooting a gun into a hurricane. But as a skateboarder, that assumption rings not only completely false, but irrelevant. Worrying about getting hurt on your skateboard goes against the carefree ethos that makes skateboarding enjoyable in the first place.
So when I saw recently that a politician in Ohio proposed a bill to penalize skateboarders for skitching — holding onto a moving car while riding your board — I wanted to find out what people think this rule might achieve, and whether it has any precedence.
For some context, the anti-skitching bill, a.k.a. the Dallas Swogger Act, is named after a sixteen-year-old Ohioan who died in a skitching accident last September. While holding onto a friend’s car, Dallas fell off his board and hit his head on the ground. A few days later, he died in the hospital.
The bill intends to prevent future accidents like this by adding skateboards to the list of devices — bicycles, roller skates, toy vehicles, etc. — that Ohioans are already not allowed to ride while holding onto a moving vehicle. First time offenders, which can include the driver if they knowingly allow the skitch, would be ticketed up to $150, and repeat offenders could be charged with low-level misdemeanors.
The motivation for the Dallas Swogger Act is fine; nothing to fault about wanting to prevent death. But it’s not really designed to protect skateboarders from the most common causes of skateboarding realted injuries.
Death by skitching is indeed rare. I have a Google Alert that notifies me every time an English language headline appears with variants of the words “skateboard” and “death.” Not including Dallas Swogger, two people in the U.S. in 2017 died while skitching a car on their skateboards. The first, a 15-year-old, died in April, and the second, a 9-year-old, died in June. Both lived in California.
But in that same year, nine people in the U.S. were struck and killed by cars while riding skateboards. Clearly, the bigger danger to skateboarders isn’t them deciding to skitch. It’s drivers being inattentive and running over skateboarders. So if someone wants to stop skateboarding traffic deaths, they need to focus on the people inside the cars, not out.
The Dallas Swogger Act isn’t the first legislative response to injured kids in the news. California’s 2003 statewide helmet law, for instance, was enacted in response to a 9-year-old kid who hit his head after falling off his scooter. Granted, skateboarders shouldn’t be punished for anything involving scooters, but it’s a worthy reminder of the power of concerned citizens.
Helmet laws, like anti-skitching laws, are ways for non-skateboarders to feel like they can make skateboarders act more responsibly, and that logic is those laws’ biggest flaw. Compared to other wheeled thingamajigs, like scooters — which out of all toys, cause the most injuries among kids annually — or bicycles — which as of 2016, the most recent data year, were involved in over 450,000 E.R. trips while skateboards were only involved in 113,000 trips — skateboards are already statistically much safer. Tightening laws on skateboarders feels like a disingenuous attempt to curb skating’s already relatively low injury rate.
Ten years ago, researchers even studied whether or not skateboards were dangerous. Their conclusion? “Despite its negative image among the medical fraternity, the skateboard does not appear to be a dangerous sport with a low incidence and injuries encountered being not severe.”
Bottom line: policing skitching more harshly won’t make the act any safer, and any skaters who want to skitch will do so regardless of a law. A penalty isn’t likely to deter even the brokest of skaters from doing what they want. Plenty cities already make it illegal to skate on sidewalks — arguably the safest place for skateboarders outside of skateparks — and instead force skateboarders into poorly constructed roads alongside inattentive drivers. That’s dumb, and adding more anti-skating laws won’t fix it.
Skateboarders aren’t going to disappear or restrict themselves to skateparks as a result of harsher laws and fines. If the concern of local and state governments is genuinely to prevent skateboarding related injuries and deaths, what will make a difference is developing laws to keep skaters safer in the streets rather than penalize them in hope of their extinction.