Chance Gaul cannot drive a car yet. He is only 14. But he is already the fastest thing on wheels around here.
While Porsches and Mercedes-Benzes precariously descend the windy canyon roads here at 25 miles per hour, Chance bombs down at 40, sometimes even 60 m.p.h. on his skateboard, savoring the sea breeze on his face. But this may be his last ride here.
The future of downhill skateboarding is in jeopardy in the region where the sport was born, with bans spreading across Southern California and lawmakers questioning whether people — teenagers mostly — should be barreling downhill at 60 m.p.h. with very little between them and the pavement.
Laguna Beach is set to become the latest city to severely restrict high-speed skateboarding, sometimes known as “bombing hills,” following other coastal cities like Malibu and Newport Beach. Once a final vote is taken on Tuesday, eight canyon roads will almost certainly be entirely off limits, while others will remain open on a six-month trial basis, after which they, too, may be closed to skaters.
“From a public safety standpoint, there is a lot to worry about,” said Mayor Toni Iseman. “I understand why kids want to do it, and I appreciate the skill set it takes, but I don’t think public streets are the place for this sport.”
Almost since its inception, skateboarding has drawn ire from pedestrians and governments. Norway banned even skateboard ownership in the 1970s and ’80s, and Nike later made light of animosity toward the sport with an ad campaign that posed the question: “What if we treated all athletes the way we treat skateboarders?”
These days, skaters can “ollie” (a trick jump) and “kickflip” (a variation on the ollie) on sidewalks with relative impunity, and the popularity of downhill skateboarding has boomed. Dozens of local boarders now don helmets and gloves to bomb Laguna Beach’s hills, up from a handful a few years ago.
The prospect of a ban here has made Laguna Beach — whose majestic cliffs overlooking the Pacific attract, and produce, some of the best boarders in the world — the center of the debate over downhill skateboarding.
“The best talent in the world is here in Laguna,” said Mark Golter, a two-time world downhill skateboarding champion who grew up here and trains younger skaters. “We’re trying to fuel and help the sport, and all of a sudden the city is saying we can’t ride.”
But residents say the boarders’ growing ranks have made driving a harrowing undertaking, rife with worries about hitting young skaters and legal liability. Because boarders are considered pedestrians under state law, they are not subject to speed limits; almost any collision with a vehicle is considered the driver’s fault.
“It just scares the dickens out of me trying to avoid these skateboarders screaming down the hills,” said Peter Weisbrod, 73, a longtime resident. “I worry about their safety, even with helmets. And I worry about liability.”
As Chance, last year’s 14-and-under U.S. Nationals Open Downhill Skateboarding champion, skated down Nyes Place after school last week, Barbara Evans pulled over in her S.U.V. to tell him to get out of the street.
“I don’t want to see a skateboarder on this hill, or any hill that I’m going down,” said Ms. Evans, who has lived here since 1975. From the back seat, her grandson, a toddler, yelled “Never!” and “Bad boy!”
Chance said most opposition to downhill skateboarding was because people were not yet familiar with the sport.
“It’s something new that they don’t know, so their eyes aren’t open to it yet,” he said. “Skateboarding was always looked down on, and now downhill skateboarding is, too. People are used to seeing bikers, so they don’t react this way to them.”
Still, injuries do happen in downhill skateboarding — as do lawsuits. Mr. Golter broke his elbow, wrist, arm, shoulders, ribs and pelvis before he retired in 2003 after his fifth concussion. And the family of a 17-year-old boy sued and settled with the nearby City of Mission Viejo after he suffered brain damage in a 2004 skateboarding accident on flatter ground.
So far, Laguna Beach has tried to broker a compromise, closing some roads to skateboarders but leaving most open for at least six months and imposing speed limits. It will also look into allowing skaters to use emergency fire roads, where there is no traffic.
But even if the city banned downhill skateboarding outright, the sport’s ties to Laguna Beach would probably not end anytime soon. Although Malibu banned downhill skateboarding in 2009, boarders still frequent its canyons.
“There are so many people joining the sport every day,” said Michael Brooke, author of “The Concrete Wave: The History of Skateboarding.” “I think if they ban it and turn it into an outlaw thing, it will probably add to the sport’s appeal.”
There's so much narrow-mindedness going on here. Like...it's completely "ban them from our roads, they're reckless trouble makers" without a thought for the fact that they're sportsmen. This is why we need to get lots of good publicity, so it doesn't get to the stage where all of a sudden out of the blue we're a nuisance and skating's straight up outlawed.
We should probably stop, its scaring the "Dickens" out of people.
Unfortunately it's a lot easier to ban skateboarders than ban cars. A huge amount of pedestrians get killed by cars every year yet there is no call for banning cars; as a society we accept this collateral damage.
In 2008 in Australia, 193 pedestrians and 27 cyclists were killed in road accidents. Hadly an insignificant number...
Her complaint is that it forces her to concentrate on the road the whole time whilst driving reducing her ability to use her Navman and mobile whilst driving.
I drive a 1.5 tonne hunk of metal, and I am also concerned about the safety of skaters, so I suppose that I had better not do any more burn-outs on high moral ground from now on.
I also hate the narrow mindedness selfishness thing in relation to how the roads are shared or not shared.
What really pisses me off is all those pricks driving away from the city, when I am stuck in inbound traffic, who wont let me drive on their side of the road, selfish pricks. yes I know that they don't want to be concentrating on anything more than getting home, but Fuckit I am going to drive on the wrong side of the road from now on, whenever it suits me!
My life as sportsman was also curtailed because of the selfish stupidity and narrow-mindedness that stopped me practising clay pidgeon shooting in the botanic gardens on Sunday mornings with the 12gauge, what the fuck is a sportsman supposed to do, its not like I was going after "their" ducks.
Its already "out of the blue". For most people skaters are a nuisance, and lets face most of us are reckless troublemakers (or at least i was before the knees got dodgy), so get used to it.
We need to start lobbying for road closures, and to do that I think we have to loose some of the "God Given Right" to skate on roads attitude, in order to at least appear a tiny little bit responsible when we ask for access more sporting facilities.
Continuing to crash into oncoming traffic or frightening the dickens out of folks (both good drivers and 1.5tonne death machine drivers) will almost guarantee new laws.