More snow means more snowmobiling, but not an increase in accidents

By DARCIE MORAN

Capital News Service

LANSING — Despite the near-record snowfall in Michigan that created a banner year for snow-related sports, snowmobile fatalities haven’t climbed with the piles of snow.

Nine snowmobile fatalities were reported this season as of mid February, said Cpl. John Morey, the Department of Natural Resources off-road vehicle and snowmobile coordinator. By about this time last year, 13 fatal snowmobile accidents had taken place.

An additional fatal accident not yet on the department record happened Feb. 19 in Luce County, according to the sheriff’s department.

“It’s a little under what it was last year despite having a high activity snowmobile season,” Morey said.

In the 2012-2013 season, 23 snowmobile accident fatalities were reported across 19 counties. Wexford, Cheboygan and Roscommon counties each had more than one.

Six of the fatal accidents in the 2012-2013 season were in the Upper Peninsula; the rest were in the upper half of the Lower Peninsula.

Of the nine accidents this season, three were in the Upper Peninsula and six were in the upper half of the Lower Peninsula.

Most snowmobile trails are in these areas.

Heavy snow this winter has made for ideal and perhaps safer snowmobiling conditions, said Bill Manson, the executive director of the Michigan Snowmobile Association.

Manson said the consistent snow across the state makes for safer conditions. Popular snow trails aren’t being overrun and snowmobilers are in less of a rush to fit in recreation on particularly snowy days.

“There’s not as much craziness,” Manson said. “People are doing the right things.”

Manson said there has been increasing safety in past decades, especially since laws were changed to penalize drunk snowmobilers with a notice on their driving record. No other state has a similar law, he said.

Sheriff’s departments in Wexford and Cheboygan counties confirmed they’ve seen fewer or at least no notable rise in accidents this year.

Speed, lack of helmet and driving under the influence of alcohol are common factors in snowmobile accidents, Morey said.

Of the 23 reported fatal accidents in the 2012-2013 season, about 15 involved alcohol or drug impairment, according to statistics.

So far, one of the nine fatal accidents reported by the department this season has been confirmed as involving alcohol or drug impairment. But not all toxicology reports are in.

The recent accident in Luce County did not involve alcohol, said Luce County Undersheriff John Cischke.

“Unfortunately some people associate the use of recreational motor sport with the use of alcohol,” Morey said. “It’s an ongoing issue.”

Snowmobilers can legally drive with a greater blood alcohol content than people who drive cars.

Snowmobiles, off-road vehicles and watercraft drivers are considered to be driving drunk when their blood alcohol content reaches 0.10 percent instead of the 0.8 that typical motor vehicle drivers face.

But some lawmakers are hoping to change that.

Rep. Andrew Kandrevas, D-Southgate, introduced a package of bills with Rep. Dave Pagel, R-Berrien, and Rep. Matt Lori, R-Constantine that focused on the use of snowmobiles, off-road vehicles and watercraft in early 2013.

The bills would adjust the law so recreational vehicles drivers have the same expectations as motor vehicles.

The package has been stalemated since May 2013.

Kandrevas said he is unsure why the bills have stalled, but knows some have concern with overregulation. Similar bills have failed in the past.

The Michigan Snowmobile Association would not oppose the bill, Manson said.

Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, who chairs the House Committee on Criminal Justice, where the package was sent for review, could not be reached prior to press time.

Sergeants from police posts in Sault Ste. Marie and St. Ignace said although impairment while driving snowmobiles might not be too common, the practice isn’t safe.

“Anytime you’re behind a motorized vehicle with alcohol involved, it’s a dangerous situation,” Michigan State Police Sgt. Lorne Hartwig of the St. Ignace Post said.

Despite the discrepancies between recreational vehicles and standard vehicles, Michigan State Police Sgt. Steven Derusha of the Sault Ste. Marie Post said if these vehicles make their way on to main roadways, the same rules apply as for non-recreational vehicles.

Kandrevas said he still hopes the bill can make it to the governor’s office before its anniversary of being introduced. In the meantime, people should become aware of the dangers behind any vehicle they operate.

“You are not only putting yourself in danger, you are endangering other people if you are overindulging,” he said.

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