Safety first on the snowmobile

Finally, after a slow start, winter has returned.

Michigan and Wisconsin are experiencing enough snowfall for residents to enjoy all types of outdoor activities.

While the snowfall totals put a smile on the faces of outdoor enthusiasts, they need to remember to participate with caution.

So far, there have been 15 fatalities among snowmobilers in Wisconsin this winter, and 12 in Michigan.

That is too many.

“We’d like to work together, concentrate on being as safe as possible while enjoying what’s left of our snowmobile season,” Wisconsin Conservation Warden and Snowmobile Safety Administrator Gary Eddy says. “Speed, alcohol and night-time operation are the three most common factors with our fatal accidents.”

There were 10 snowmobile fatalities in Wisconsin for all of the 2011-12 season, which was nearly non-existent in a large part of the state area due to a lack of snow, Eddy says. Michigan recorded 16 snowmobile fatalities last winter.

Some parts of Wisconsin and Michigan received more snow this week as storms moved into the Midwest.

Two snowmobile deaths in Wisconsin occurred within the past few days.

A double-fatality (operator and passenger) occurred sometime overnight into early morning on Thursday, Feb. 21, in Ashland County when two snowmobilers failed to arrive at Madeline Island after leaving Bayfield.

The bodies were recovered from the South Channel of Lake Superior.

Eddy says as the winter winds down and spring gets closer, the ice conditions also start changing, adding another risk to snowmobilers.

“Ice conditions will begin to deteriorate rapidly,” Eddy says. “Snowmobilers will need to exercise a high degree of caution if operating on late-season ice. The best choice is to stay off the ice altogether.”

In Michigan, there have been 12 snowmobile fatalities this winter.

The latest occurred Friday in the northern Lower Peninsula involving a Detroit-area snowmobiler. Crawford County Sheriff Kirk Wakefield says a road worker discovered the victim about 7:20 a.m. Saturday in Beaver Creek Township. The site is near the shore of Higgins Lake and about 10 miles south of Grayling.

Wakefield says it appears the crash happened sometime Friday night.

Michigan and Wisconsin are popular for snowmobilers. On average, Wisconsin registers 220,000 snowmobiles annually, while Michigan has some 380,000 registered snowmobiles.

“Snowmobiling is a great winter activity and we want people to ride safe so that they can come home to their families and ride again,” Eddy says.

All snowmobilers should follow these common sense guidelines:

– Don’t drink: Drinking and driving can be fatal. Drinking alcohol before or during snowmobiling can impair judgment and slow reaction time. Snowmobilers who have been drinking may drive too fast or race across unsafe ice. Alcohol also causes body temperature to drop at an accelerated rate, which increases the likelihood of hypothermia.

– Slow down: Speed is a contributing factor in nearly all fatal snowmobiling accidents. Drivers should proceed at a pace that will allow ample reaction time for any situation. When driving at night, a speed of only 40 miles an hour may result in “overdriving” the headlight.

– Be prepared: When traveling, make sure to bring a first aid kit, a flashlight, waterproof matches, a knife, a compass and a cell phone.

– Stay alert: Fatigue can reduce the driver’s coordination and judgment.

– Ice advice: Avoid traveling across bodies of water when uncertain of ice thickness and strength of ice on lakes and ponds. Snow cover can act as a blanket and prevent safe ice from forming. Never travel in a single file when crossing bodies of water.

– Dress for success: Use a full-size helmet, goggles or face shield to prevent injuries from twigs, stones, ice and flying debris. Windproof and water-repellent clothing should be worn in layers and should be just snug enough so that no loose ends catch in the machine.

– Avoid roads: When it is necessary to cross a road, first come to a complete stop, listen and look for traffic and use hand signals. Stay away from any automobiles whether moving or parked.

– Watch the weather: Rapid weather changes can produce dangerous conditions.

– Bring a buddy: Never travel alone. Most snowmobile accidents result in some personal injury. The most dangerous situations can occur if a person is injured and alone. If you must travel alone tell someone your destination, planned route and when you will return.