Opinion: It’s possible and important to keep skateboarders safe on campus

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Illustrated by Mia Miller

Skateboarding has a long, somewhat fuzzy history. No one knows who invented the very first board on wheels, but they were first utilized and popularized in the 1950s and 60s here in Southern California, mostly by surfers on waveless days. Through the decades, the contraption evolved from a wooden plank with roller wheels slapped on the bottom to the many different iterations of skateboards we know today — longboards, cruisers and of course, the classic symmetrical deck with a kicktail on each side.

Fast forward about 70 years from the first skateboards, and there’s me, skating around campus in 2022. My current board of choice is a surfskate. Developed by Carver in 1996, surfskates incorporate special trucks that allow you to generate your own speed by pumping as if on a wave. Mine has the fun aesthetic of a shortboard surfboard, with the grip tape arranged in a pattern that vaguely represents a tail pad, and a stringer down the middle. Surfskating is a freaking blast. I’m no expert yet, but I relish any chance to grab my board, get some practice and take advantage of Oxy’s endlessly sunny days. The only problem? Skateboarding isn’t allowed on campus.

Obviously, hearing about this rule disheartened me at first. But I decided that before I passed judgment, I should do some research as to why this policy is in place.

The policy reads: “Based on concerns for the safety of boarders and pedestrians, as well as documented risk and liability issues, the use of skateboards, longboards, hoverboards (and other self-balancing boards), Rollerblades, skates, Razor scooters, and other devices not considered to be vehicles, according to Section 670 of the California Vehicle Code, is always prohibited anywhere on the campus.”

According to Rick Tanksley, director of campus safety, there has been one reported incident since the start of the current academic year involving a skateboarder and a pedestrian. The skateboarder collided with the pedestrian outside of Booth Hall. There were no injuries.

Although no one was hurt in this instance, would incidents like this become more common and increase the potential for more severe injuries if skateboarding was allowed on campus? It is hard to speculate, but I can tell you that skateboards tend to travel much slower than bicycles (which are allowed on campus). The average speed of a skateboard ranges from 5–12 mph while the average speed of a bicycle is about twice that. So, if we can trust cyclists — not to mention drivers, who often share road space with pedestrians — to ride around campus without hurting others, we should be able to afford that same luxury to skaters, while encouraging everyone to be aware of their surroundings. And since they tend to move slower, skateboarders likely pose even less of a danger to pedestrians than bikes and cars.

For boarders themselves, skateboarding actually isn’t all that risky, especially compared to other recreational sports. In 2019, skateboarding was ranked10th by the National Safety Council among sports that caused the most emergency room visits. Examples of other recreational activities that ranked above skateboarding included biking, using exercise machines and swimming. So what does put skaters most at risk for injury? To put it simply: cars. Almost every skateboarding fatality between 2011 and 2015 occurred on the road, and the majority of severe skateboarding accidents involve a vehicle. This is why, for me and many others, Oxy’s campus is such a gem for skateboarding. I can glide across smooth, flat pavement without having to be constantly looking out for the next car to roll by. And, unfortunately, when a skateboarder is told they have to take it off campus, the nearest available surface is the road.

A recent USC study found that skateboarding also has an abundance of social-emotional benefits. The sport is shown to improve mental health, foster a sense of community and encourage resilience. Other colleges seem to be on to this. In fact, Occidental was the only college I could find in the LA area that has a rule against skateboarding. Pitzer even has skateboard racks on their campus. It begs the question: why is Oxy the outlier here?

After looking at the facts, it seems to me that Occidental is prioritizing hypothetical liability issues over the actual emotional and physical well-being of their students. Skateboarding is a fun, healthy physical activity that poses little danger to pedestrians, as well as an effective and clean way to get around. It’s much, much safer to do on campus than off, and skaters deserve a safe place to enjoy their sport.