By Jim Duke Contributing Writer
With the official snowmobile season about half gone, the number of fatalities and critical injuries are multiplying almost as quickly as the coronavirus and list of variants. Understand this is not just a Michigan problem, from all accounts made public it seems to be running rampart across the entire snowbelt of the nation, and similar to any other concern of public interest, it sparks a degree of controversy with plenty of comments of both pro and con. At almost every meeting where snowmobiling enthusiasts and those opposing any motorized recreational pursuits are gathered, there will be plenty of sparing along with some very intense dialog.
Although not to the same degree as the gun control issue, the anti-motorized zealots seize upon any possible tragedy that might benefit their radical agenda and make it a major point of contention. The sad thing about such actions is that the misinformed public accept these falsehoods as gospel and climb on the environmental bandwagon to join up, without ever knowing what actually brought the controversy about, or caused the tragedy in the first place.
The media, both by video or printed form, also perpetuate the situation by demonizing anyone and everyone that has ever shown an interest in participating in snowmobiling activities or other motorized recreation, regardless of age or gender, and as one snowmobiling advocate puts it, “we are our own worst enemy” and most of the time, that is a true statement! Another true statement that we hear almost daily is “Speed Kills!” and we cannot help but urge every snowmobiler that heads out onto the trails to ride sensibly and relax the thumb on the throttle. Even more so for those who want to venture off-trail, ride cautiously and watch for any hidden hazards, remember a stump just a few inches above the ground can be a deadly obstacle when hit at what most would consider a sensible speed.
It’s been said more times than I can remember to ride safe, ride sober, and always ride right! As much as I agree that all these admonishments are equally important, there are far more riders adhering to the zero tolerance and ride sober pledge these days than those who fail to keep on the right side of the trail. This should be the number one concern of every snowmobiler, not just for the lead sled, but for every sled, and not just in the winding or hilly trails, but for every trail, every day. Ride safe is a statement that is taken far too lightly, because not a single rider ever started out with the intention to be in an accident or become a fatality, but far too often that is the way it ends up!
Several years ago, when most fatalities were said to be caused by speeding, the manufacturers were mandated to limit the size of the engines they installed in snowmobiles, and thereby reducing the possibility of deaths by speed. As it turned out, there were more “shade-tree mechanics” that could modify the engines and make them even more deadly than what was coming out of the factories, and not all speed junkies wanted that for the racetracks, most wanted it for the trails! Another old saying that comes to mind being used more and more lately is “Can’t regulate common sense”, and obviously not many can even control it!
In a recent discussion with a Conservation Officer who says he’s seen more than his share of deadly accidents on, and off, the snowmobile trails claims that more than half of them could have been avoided simply by using less throttle and more attention to what they were doing. He also says that even with the state snowmobile association’s zero tolerance campaign, many post-accident investigations point to alcohol consumption as a contributing factor in the crash. Many folks think a beer with their burger won’t hurt anything, and quite honestly, I used to believe that same thing, until I witnessed what some think is “a beer”! Now I’m a strong believer in the “no alcohol until the keys are put away” programs and insist that anyone who rides with me adheres to it as well.
Alcohol and Trail Riding
Another false notion is that anyone entering a bar or tavern has to have a drink. The greater majority of those establishments will tell you they are just as happy to serve up non-alcoholic beverages as they are serving a beer, wine, or cocktails, and most also serve some pretty great food choices as well. Just to reminisce a bit, when the zero-tolerance campaign was first kicked off back in the mid-50’s, a number of establishments were complaining that it would ruin their business, but within a year many of those same business owners were praising the campaign, saying they had witnessed an increase in clientele, mostly families, and they found a bigger profit margin in the sale of soft drinks, tea, and coffee than they ever had in serving up booze.
One sure thing brought about by the campaign, although slow to begin with, was compliance to the program by the snowmobilers themselves. In the first weeks of the “take the pledge” campaign compliance was less than thirty percent but at year’s end it was reported to be well above 50%, and today the compliance factor is greater than 90%, but there are still many who refuse to believe that it makes a difference, but the proposed and approved legislation to increase the penalties for impaired operation of a snowmobile to mirror those for other motor vehicles has served the snowmobile programs well.
So, today, although alcohol is still a factor in many snowmobile accidents, it’s the speed that is primarily to blame. If one checks the statistics, they will find that most isn’t the younger folks either, most are middle aged and several have already entered their “golden years”. This is not to say everyone needs to ride at a snail’s pace, but perhaps more riders need to consider what speed they are capable of handling and not exceed that limit. Referring back to that earlier statement concerning “common sense”.
In summary, and to the snowmobilers that requested I address this alarming issue, the grant sponsors that groom the snowmobile trails have done their best to eliminate the vast majority of hazards and made the trail surfaces as safe as possible. The rest is up to the snowmobilers, to ride in a safe and reasonable manner, to stay to the right side of the trail, and to ride within their own comfort zones. To avoid alcohol consumption and refrain from squeezing the throttle to tightly will go a long way in creating a safer atmosphere and a more enjoyable experience for everyone. Have fun, but stay safe and stay sober. •