By ELIZABETH FERGUSON
Capital News Service
LANSING — A new law lowering the maximum blood alcohol content allowed for snowmobile drivers is a step in the right direction for the Michigan Snowmobile Association.
The association has discouraged snowmobilers from consuming alcohol since 1999, and by reducing the legal limit from .1 percent to .08 percent — the same as the motor vehicle limit — beginning March 1, legislators have brought more awareness to the issue, executive director Bill Manson said.
Manson said many snowmobilers are already limiting their alcohol consumption or not drinking at all while snowmobiling.
Since 2004, snowmobile crashes involving alcohol have dropped 65 percent to 17 crashes in 2012, according to the Michigan State Police Office of Highway Safety Planning.
Overall snowmobile fatalities, including fatalities related to alcohol, have been decreasing over the past 10 years, according to Dan Moore, Eastern Upper Peninsula recreation specialist at the Department of Natural Resources (DNS).
“Personally I attribute this to our state’s enforcement efforts,” Moore said, “but also to the Michigan Snowmobile Association putting on the zero tolerance program.”
Before association directors launched the zero tolerance effort 15 years ago, the association only urged snowmobilers to be cautious when consuming alcohol.
In 1999, the association decided to eliminate alcohol from its activities and began encouraging riders to do the same, Manson said. The program served as a model for the International Snowmobile Administrators Association and other state regulators.
Both the Michigan DNR and county sheriffs have seen this program’s effect on safety, including Alger County Sheriff Robert Hughes. He said snowmobiling is always popular in the area because of frequent snow and extensive trails in the northern Upper Peninsula county.
While Hughes said it’s too early to judge the new law’s impact, he thinks it will help the existing effort to keep snowmobilers safe.
“If it saves one life, a difference has been made by legislators,” Hughes said, adding that the law and the snowmobile association’s policy complement each other.
“Everything put together is all important to try to keep the trails safer,” Hughes said.
So far this year, Alger County has had four significant snowmobiling accidents, including two deaths and two serious injuries, Hughes said. The accidents involved speed, but none involved alcohol.
According to Moore, even when you take alcohol out of the picture, speed is still a threat.
A continued effort to decrease snowmobile fatalities by the association and state officials includes education and trail maintenance. While it isn’t required, the association and counties like Alger offer safety classes for snowmobilers.
Moore said the DNR and the association work to properly sign and groom trails so they are safe for any rider, whether they are a new snowmobiler, a tourist or a local.
Snowmobilers must purchase a trail permit to operate their machine in Michigan. These state permit dollars fund grooming and trail maintenance done by local trail associations.
Hughes has noticed Alger County trails have been better groomed in the past few years, something he thinks is an important factor of riders’ safety.
Snowmobilers, especially new drivers, must understand their own ability, Moore said, adding that everyone is responsible for safety.
“Even one fatality is too many,” Moore said.
By ELIZABETH FERGUSON