Taking NIMBYSM to new heights

September 14, 2011

accident, Commercial, nuisance, regulation

A recent article in Spiegel Online International takes NIMBYSM (Not in my Back-Yard, Span or Mountain!) literally to new heights.

Lukas Eberle describes how villagers in the Swiss village of Lauterbrunnen are being deluged with BASE jumpers (an extreme variation of parachuting where jumps take place from Buildings, Antennas, Spans and Earth). Apparently, there were around 15,000 BASE jumps in Lauterbrunnen last year, a figure which sits in stark contrast to a number of jurisdictions around the world that ban or heavily license the sport.

For me, the article  raises two main issues: what degree of autonomy / paternalism is appropriate? and what is the cost of failed jumps (both in human and financial terms)?

 

AUTONOMY / PATERNALISM

When Lord Hoffman made his now seminal judgment in Tomlinson v. Congleton Borough Council [2002] EWCA Civ 309 that:

 “I think it will be extremely rare for an occupier of land to be under a duty to prevent people from taking risks which are inherent in the activities they freely choose to undertake upon the land. If people want to climb mountains, go hang gliding or swim or dive in ponds or lakes, that is their affair. Of course the landowner may for his own reasons wish to prohibit such activities. He may be think that they are a danger or inconvenience to himself or others. Or he may take a paternalist view and prefer people not to undertake risky activities on his land. He is entitled to impose such conditions, as the Council did by prohibiting swimming. But the law does not require him to do so.” [45]

A view echoed later in the case by Lord Hobhouse of Woodborough:

“In truth, the arguments for the claimant have involved an attack upon the liberties of the citizen which should not be countenanced. They attack the liberty of the individual to engage in dangerous, but otherwise harmless, pastimes at his own risk and the liberty of citizens as a whole fully to enjoy the variety and quality of the landscape of this country. The pursuit of an unrestrained culture of blame and compensation has many evil consequences and one is certainly the interference with the liberty of the citizen.” [81]

I am not sure that either judge had in mind the issue of BASE jumpers lobbing themselves off mountains, but that is now the situation facing the authorities in Lauterbrunnen. What is interesting about Lauterbrunnen is the shift from what would seem to be an initial openness and complete autonomy for anyone to jump to a much more structured self-regulation and licensing scheme imposed from within the sport.

The winds of change may however be blowing through the valleys once again if recent articles, websites and BASE discussion forums are to be believed. Indeed, it would now seem that public perception of the acceptability of the sport has changed following repeated injuries and fatalities (three deaths in particular occurred within three weeks of each other, earlier this summer, http://www.321base.eu/). Whether the sport will be able to resist the clamouring for tighter restrictions on the activity will therefore depend on whether the diverse multinational groups of jumpers can be regulated.

As the judgments in Tomlinson showed, there are no right or wrong answers rather a balancing of competing rights. In jurisdictions such as the US and UK, the sport is restricted by criminal trespass laws except for time-limited opportunities to jump from certain objects at particular occasions within the year, in a quasi-controlled and somewhat paternalistic manner; In this context, the libertarian approach taken by Switzerland seems to have led to the country becoming almost a victim of its own success. As access to sites has become easier, propelled by a burgeoning adventure tourism industry, so the sporting purists have been diluted by a wider variety of opportunistic jumpers.

And therein lies the problem, regulating such an extreme activity will always be inherently difficult given that the sport was created to push beyond traditional boundaries and restrictions. With such an underground, anti-establishment history, it is perhaps worth asking the question whether BASE jumping can ever be successfully self-regulated or policed?

To a certain extent, parallels do exist with society’s acceptance with off-piste snowboarding and other extreme activities. Indeed, it is even possible to get BASE jumping lessons! As strange as it sounds, there are BASE jumping schools, some websites even offer tandem BASE jumps so you can vicariously get that extreme adrenaline rush without all that bothersome training and experience (apparently these are becoming popular with stag parties!). I don’t know what is more worrying, the mainstream acceptance of BASE jumping or the thought of how the sport can get even more extreme once it ceases to be cool.

 

THE COST OF FAILED JUMPS

One other thing the article does do particularly well is to poignantly bring home that a fatal jump has consequences not just for the jumper, but also for potentially any innocent members of the public who might have witnessed the accident. It is one thing to extol the virtues of living life to the extreme in a desolate wilderness, or by pitting yourself against the elements, it is something entirely different to traumatise innocent villagers and children with the stark realities of uncontrolled gravity.

Some might say that we should celebrate that a jumper may have died doing something they loved, I worry though that in doing so we blur that line between applauding extremes of human performance and encouraging reckless acts in pursuit of that blaze of glory. BASE Jumping is not an entry-level sport, rather it should remain the prerogative of the experienced athlete, the jumper who respects nature, their own limitations, and the rights of those they share the environment with. The sport should be something more than simply jumping off a summit, it should also involve knowing when not to jump.

I do fear though from the future of the sport in Switzerland when local farmers are quoted as saying:

“The authorities don’t want to ban the jumping because even a dead BASE jumper brings money in,” the farmer says angrily. Many in the area would earn some cash in such a case, “the doctor, mountain rescue” and also the hotel and restaurant industry — “when the relatives travel here,”

Let’s just hope the jumpers become more respectful or the Swiss authorities turn out not to be as a as cynical as Farmer Feuz suspects….

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About Kris

Associate Professor in Sports Law, Staffordshire University; British Gymnastics Senior Coach

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One Comment on “Taking NIMBYSM to new heights”

  1. Kris Says:

    For an alternative viewpoint of extreme sport regulation, it might also be worth checking out Jon’s earlier post on ski liability: https://sportslawnews.wordpress.com/2009/04/02/high-cost-of-chasing-powder/

    Reply

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