State lawmakers will debate this week whether to give live children traveling in the open bed of pickup trucks the same legal status as a dead elk.
The measure to be debated Thursday by members of the House Transportation Committee would forbid anyone younger than 18 from traveling in the back of a pickup unless "safely restrained.''
Some variant of the legislation has been pushed every year for more than a dozen years, usually falling by the wayside during the legislative process.
One year the measure actually made it through the process -- only to be quashed by then-Gov. Jane Hull in her first substantive veto of her career.
"We must educate, not legislate,'' the governor said. "We must educate parents about the dangers of children riding in the back of pickup trucks, not pass more laws telling parents what to do.''
It is precisely that question which threatens to derail this year's legislation, which stalled in the committee when first considered last week.
"It comes down the fundamental question: Is government responsible for your kids or are parents responsible for your kids?'' asked Rep. Jerry Weiers, R-Glendale.
"At what point does government step in and tell you you're too stupid to take care of your kids?'' he continued. "At what point do we give up our freedoms to government?''
Rep. Matt Heinz, D-Tucson, the prime sponsor of the legislation, conceded that the perennial questions of vehicle safety is "a very touchy issue.''
For example, Arizona used to have a law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. That was repealed amid protests from riders.
The state does mandate that front-seat passengers wear their safety belts.
But the law also spells out that police may not pull over a motorist solely because an occupant is unbuckled. Only if the car or truck is stopped for some other reason may a citation be issued.
And while Arizona does require the smallest children to be in specially designed car seats, the state has so far refused to mandate booster seats for those who have outgrown those seats but are too small to be properly restrained in seat belts designed for adults.
One thing driving the debate about kids in pickup trucks is there already are laws requiring that the cargo in the back of open pickup trucks be properly restrained.
"A carcass has to be tied down,'' Heinz told Weiers. "So your dead elk or your dead deer has to be tied down, but not your 4-year-old.''
That assessment was confirmed by Kevin Biesty, lobbyist for the Arizona Department of Transportation.
The measure, HB 2089, has bipartisan backing: Rep. Doris Goodale, R-Kingman, said she added her voice to the measure after hearing the story of a constituent who lost a son because he made a "bad decision'' to get in the back of a pickup truck.
"It's kind of an anomaly that if you move a refrigerator and you move a couch, you have to restrain that for the safety of the surrounding public,'' she said. "But you don't have to restrain a child.''
The measure is crafted with a host of exceptions that Heinz said he believes could help minimize opposition.
One of the biggest is that the law would not apply on roads with a posted speed limit of 35 miles per hour or less, assuming the driver were not speeding. There also are exemptions for organized parades, private property and on Indian reservations.
And children could ride in the back of pickup trucks if they were enclosed with a camper or camper shell that prevents them from being ejected.
Rochelle Wells, president-elect of the Arizona Parent Teacher Association, added her voice, calling the ability of kids to ride in the back of pickup trucks "a long-neglected safety issue.''
She said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has data showing that an average of 50 youths, age 20 or less, are killed in accidents because they were riding in the open bed of pickup trucks.