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Agencies should not lax rules because of virus

The numbers won’t be added to Wisconsin’s death toll from the COVID-19 virus, but they probably should be.

They may be only a handful, but they will be real — and they’ll result from the state’s easing of requirements for young people to hunt and to drive.

The Department of Natural Resources became the second state agency to ease licensing restrictions this month, announcing an “online-only hunter education option for youth.”

What that means is the state, at least temporarily, is dropping its requirement that all hunters under that age of 18 are required to at least attend a 5- to 7-hour “field day” of instruction and testing supervised by certified hunter instructors.

It will go virtual — without any in-person vetting by veteran hunters of their hunting and hunter-safety techniques.

The DNR action came after it suspended the field-day instruction last spring and was sued by a conservative pro-hunting group. It resumed the instruction during the summer, but had only processed 6,000 applicants, far down from 16,000 for in-person classes in a typical year.

We continue to have serious reservations about the effectiveness of “virtual learning” — whether it be in schools, many of which have been forced to take this route to prevent COVID outbreaks, and certainly for hunting and driving.

Last spring, the Department of Motor Vehicles became the first state agency to step through the virtual door when it dropped its requirement for an in-person road test for 16- and 17-year-olds in a “pilot program” that represented “innovative solutions to help Wisconsin address challenges created by the pandemic,” the DOT secretary said at the time.

Yes, new young drivers still have to get an instructional permit for at least six months, complete a driver’s education and behind-the-wheel training and log in 30 hours of driving with a parent or sponsor.

But the road test is not required — all you need is a waiver signed by a parent or sponsor.

The DMV said at the time 98% of applicants pass the road test on the first or second time. What they didn’t say was that about 28% of those who take the road test fail on the first effort and have to wait before taking a second test. Now they’ll be on the road.

And what the DMV didn’t say was that 16- and 17-year-old drivers continue to dominate the statistics nationwide for all crashes, injury crashes and deaths to others on a miles driven comparison. Or that their involvement in crashes is double that of the next highest group — 18- and 19-year-olds, according to the American Automobile Association.

So, yes, we’re worried that state agencies have backed away from in-person vetting of young people for both hunting and driving. The DMV says it’s a pilot program and the DNR’s relaxation of its rules is temporary through the end of December.

We can only hope that these lax rules are quick to exit. Hunter safety training and increased driver’s education training for young people have had a marked effect on safety — both in the field and on the road — over the past half century.

As one Wisconsin hunter safety instructor put it, “We still think in-person training is the way to go.”

We agree.

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