January 18, 2006
Jonathan Wood, MD
Winter is a time for outdoor fun. In Maine, snowmobiling figures prominently in that fun for a lot of people. Unfortunately, as recent headlines have reminded us, snowmobiling comes with a host of dangers: there were 3 teenage deaths last week in Maine alone. Many such deaths are preventable.
And with January 8-14, 2006 being International Snowmobile Safety Week, what better time to review some of the facts surrounding this popular winter activity.
What are some of the numbers?
• >100,000 registered snowmobilers in Maine
• More than 13,000 mile of snowmobiling trails in Maine
• Snowmobiling is a multimillion dollar industry in Maine and a 27 billion dollar industry nationwide
• Snowmobiles are designed for speed: most can reach 100 mph with in 5 seconds
• A recent Minnesota study established several facts:
• Snowmobile lights typically light approximately 200 feet and it takes approx 200 ft to stop at 40 mph
• Reaction-time on a “sled” is approximately 1.5 seconds (longer than in a car)
• The corresponding math yields the following
• At 70 mph, there is approx 0.5 sec between reaction and impact
• At 100 mph, there is likely to be impact before any reaction is possible
Debate rages about speed control and other factors important to reducing the dangers of snowmobiling. Minnesota, following the study noted above, implemented a 50 mph speed limit and has dramatically reduced snowmobile fatalities. Neighboring Wisconsin, is a grim reminder of what lack of such legislation can do: almost 3 times the annual fatalities despite fewer registered users. During the 4 years after their speed limit was implemented, Minnesota’s fatality rate dropped to an average of 7 per year. During the same time period, Maine’s average fatality rate was 8 per year despite having fewer than 1/3 the number of registered users. Translation: far fewer snowmobilers, but still more fatalities in Maine.
What about age issues? As a pediatrician, I must agree that this is NOT a sport designed for or safe for young children. Furthermore, I agree that teens should be required to complete a safety certification program specific to snowmobiling. There is such a law in all three of our neighboring states/provinces : New Hampshire, Quebec, and New Brunswick. And add Vermont to the list as well. Why not Maine? Where speed enforcement would be challenging, a safety certification course would not. And with such active snowmobiling clubs around the state, the means to deliver such a course is already available. I have included below links to the related statements from the Canadian Pediatric Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Of note, of the 26 snowmobile driver fatalities in New England in 2003-04, none had taken an operator safety course.
In the meantime, all of us must use our heads when we use these splendid machines. They are built for speed and we use them in some of the most inhospitable weather in the country - - we need to be careful!
Here are some excellent tips from the Maine Snowmobile Association:
1.) RIDE SOBER:
Don't drink and ride. Don't let anyone in your group drink and ride. Maine has a tough snowmobile OUI law. If you manage to drink and ride and are caught before you are killed, you will be punished with mandatory jail time and fines. Restaurants, Inns, Lodges and Resorts welcome snowmobilers who want to have a few drinks with their friends. But please do it AFTER you've gone sledding, not before. Be a good friend and lift the keys of a fellow rider who thinks he's OK when he's not. That trick is working with drunken drivers - it can work with drunken sledders, too.
2.) RIDE TO THE RIGHT:
Only makes sense. Odds are good that an automobile traveling in the left hand lane of the road will sooner or later run into another car head on. Same goes for sleds. Stay to the right, even on straightways.
3.) RIDE AT A REASONABLE SPEED:
Speed on a Maine snowmobile trail is measured on a standard of reasonable speed for the existing conditions. If you cannot control your sled safely at the speed that you are traveling in the current conditions - you're speeding. Slow down. Snowmobile clubs across the state host radar runs, hill climbs and races all season long. If you want to ride hard and fast, do it at one of these events, and take home a trophy to boot!
4.) USE HAND SIGNALS:
The consistent use of a simple set of standardized hand signals on the trails keeps movement orderly and predictable. These standardized signals inform other sledders of your actions and allow everyone around you to anticipate the need to slow down. The MSA has distributed thousands of copies of these hand signals over the past five years and reports from the trails are that signal usage is up significantly. Good job, folks. This simple skill is one that every snowmobiler can learn and use to increase their safety on the trails.
5.) RIDE DEFENSIVELY:
You and your group can do everything right, and still encounter a sledder who's doing everything wrong. Don't let their poor judgment or illegal behavior injure you. Always expect the unexpected from the sledder coming toward you. If there is a problem, you'll be prepared to respond and avoid a dangerous situation.
Despite concerted efforts by the MSA, the Maine Warden Service, MSA clubs and the media, there are still some snowmobiling dinosaurs out on the trail who think snow trails are made for drinking and racing. Keep an eye out, ride defensively.
...And keep an eye out for 4 legged animals as well. Moose and deer live where you're sledding. Wildlife always have the right of way. If you come up behind a moose on the trail stay far away and wait for the animal to lumber off. If any large animal shows an interest in the fact that you are on the trail, turn around and leave. Don't turn off your sled and follow animals on foot to get a better look. You may get a much closer look than you wanted.
These additional steps will protect you even further:
• Dress appropriately (layers) and wear a helmet. No one should operate a snowmobile without the protection of a helmet. A life saver in the case of an accident, your helmet will also keep you protected from the occasional tree branch "face slapper" and inclement weather.
• Carry a map and stay on the trails. Shortcuts can not only be hazardous if you don't know the area, sledders can get "turned around" pretty easily out there. Why bother heading out across unmarked open tracts if you have 13,000 miles of signed trails?
• Carry a basic repair kit. Saves a lot of frustration if you have a spare belt, a couple tools, etc. with you. (An even better idea is to give your sled a good going over before every trip.)
• Carry a survival kit, including a pocket knife, flare, flashlight, matches, first aid kit, etc.
• Check weather reports before heading out. Ever been on a sled in a white out? Enough said.
• Let someone know where you're planning to go and when you plan to return. An itinerary form left with a friend, the motel staff etc is invaluable if you actually run into trouble on the trail. If your return is delayed, contact the person aware of your trip plans if at all possible, to head off an unnecessary search effort. Print out a few itinerary forms and have them available for your next trip.
• Don't snowmobile alone. If you run into mechanical trouble, you'll have someone along who can truck you back home; bury your sled, and there's extra hands to help dig out; take a wrong turn, and there's someone else to blame.....
• Don't cross frozen bodies of water unless you are absolutely sure of ice thickness. Trails generally will not lead you across ponds or lakes unless there is no reasonable alternative. Bridges are provided to cross rivers and streams. However, you will find some places where you may cross water, such as marked passage on well frozen lakes - check locally for current ice thicknesses.
• Take care crossing public ways - on busier roads, have a member of the group check for traffic and direct sledders across.
• Don't overdrive your lights. Don't tangle with a wire, stump or rock on a fast machine in the middle of a cold, dark night.
BE SMART - - KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING!!!