Death on the trails

Snowmobiling is supposed to be fun, a wintertime recreational pursuit accessible to families and people of all ages. It is not supposed to end in death or serious bodily injury. Yet in Maine, the season winding down has been badly marred by one after another of snowmobiling accidents that resulted in death to the operators. Eleven people have died this winter somewhere on Maine’s 14,000 miles of trails. In almost all the crashes, the operator lost control at a high rate of speed and hit a tree.

There are two ways to process this sobering statistic. 1) We need to do something, or 2) There isn’t much we can do. (Like highway accidents, snowsled crashes go with the activity. As long as people who operate machines make bad choices and poor decisions, there will be deadly consequences.)

There is no easy solution, no salutary silver bullet. And there is a paradox that underlies the fun vs. safety dilemma. It is the essential attraction or appeal of snowmobiling itself — the wide open spaces and freedom of movement on the trails — that make this sport inherently dangerous for those who take chances. Statistically, a NASCAR driver who drives fast is no doubt in less harm’s way than a speeding snowsledder. (Colliding with a beech tree at 70 mph on a snowmobile is surer death, it seems, than hitting the wall wide open at the Daytona 500, helmet or no helmet.)

Maine has no speed limit for snowsledders. The rule is simply to drive at a “reasonable and prudent speed.” New Hampshire, on the other hand, has a 45-mph speed limit on all trails. Neighboring Vermont has no general speed limit, except on state land, which is 35 mph.

Has New Hampshire fared better fatality-wise? Apparently not. Although it did have one fatality-free season a while back, the Granite State still averages about five deaths a year. And it has only 7,000 miles of trails compared with Maine’s 14,000 miles of trails.

The temptation is to blame technology and increasingly “hot,” high-performance snow machines for this awful mayhem on our snowmobile trails. But I could find no statistical correlation. In fact, Maine’s worst year was almost 20 years ago, during a winter that saw 16 snowsled-related deaths!

An attempt to impose speed limits on Maine’s trails by a state lawmaker or two is probably inevitable. Is it the way to go? Of course, the question warrants study, but there is yet to be evidence that, given Maine’s expanse of trails, a speed limit is truly enforceable, or that it would significantly change anything. A number of other Northeast states have experienced higher snowmobile fatality rates than Maine!

There once was a day, during much simpler times, when nobody died on snowsleds unless it was from breaking though thin ice. My first Ski-Doo boasted a 12-hp Rotax engine. Top speed downhill was about 18 mph. The biggest risk was a dislocated shoulder from repeatedly pulling the starter cord, or becoming hypothermic while stuck in the woods with a frozen gas line or a broken drive belt.

Times change. Today, miles and miles of well-groomed trails and high-performance snowmobiles have forever altered not only the snow sledding sport, but its important contribution to our state’s winter economy. Until all snowmobilers understand the danger, use common sense and practice courtesy, tragedy on the trails will continue.

V. Paul Reynolds

Columnist at Ellsworth American
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. His email address is [email protected]

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