Suicide Machines

Take a snow day: A snowmobile-safety class taught at White Bear Lake High School
Diana Watters

Michael Kane surveys the roomful of bored teens slouched before him at White Bear Lake High School, then calls tonight's snowmobile safety class to order.

"How many fatal accidents were there last year?" he inquires of the group.

"Eleven?" several kids venture

"Eleven," Kane repeats, confirming the answer. "What were some of the factors involved with those?"

"Alcohol," say some. "Speed," say others.

Over the next two and a half hours, Kane, who is a White Bear Lake police officer by day, and fellow instructor Mike Servatka, will attempt to drum into their charges a host of snowmobile lore and safety tips, reminding the kids of the 50 mph speed limit on public lands and waters, of the consequences of getting busted for Snowmobiling While Intoxicated (the offense shows up on your driving record), and even showing a video about the perils of hypothermia and falling through the ice.

After the brutal winter of 1996-97, which yielded 32 snowmobile-related deaths, the Minnesota Legislature toughened up the state's snowmobile safety laws. Today, in order to legally operate a snowmobile, any Minnesota residents born after December 31, 1979 must have completed a safety course such as this one. (As of October 2002, the law will apply to those born after December 31, 1976.) Youth courses like Kane's include eight hours of instruction, plus a certification test; the adult-level class is taught in a single evening.

State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) statistics for the five seasons from 1994-95 through 1998-99 show a total of 113 snowmobile deaths in 105 different accidents. The five most common ways to die on your snowmobile are: striking a fixed object (39 deaths), breaking through the ice (15), colliding with a car (13), colliding with another snowmobile (13), and rolling over (7). Less common causes include colliding with barbed wire and fences, with pedestrians, and with trains. In none of the 113 deaths was equipment malfunction the culprit.

Though last winter's relatively low death rate was due in part to the year's scant snowfall, snowmobile-safety advocates believe the safety classes have helped. "I like to think that some of the education that we've been doing is starting to pay off," says Capt. Jeff Thielen, who heads the DNR's enforcement and education programs. "When you compare last season to Wisconsin, they had a record of 30-some fatalities," Thielen adds, noting that our neighbor to the east has no speed limit and does not put SWIs on offenders' driving records.

Still, this winter's first snowmobile fatality was about as grisly as they come: An eight-year-old boy died November 26 when the snowmobile he was riding collided with a train in Braham, about an hour north of the Twin Cities. Under Minnesota law, kids under 12 may operate snowmobiles if they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. The boy was snowmobiling with his father. The incident, in Thielen's opinion, underscores a need to update state laws to reflect the power of the modern snowmobile.

"Most of the laws were written in the 1960s when snowmobiles were capable of reaching 30 miles an hour, max," he says, noting that today's machines easily do 70, if not 100, miles per hour. "There are many people out there who still view these things as toys and somewhat of a baby-sitter for their children. They're high-powered machines that may not be appropriate for youthful operation. What we have seen is that the highest number of accidents occur with people that are 14 and 15."

He's not alone in his concern. Just last month the American Academy of Pediatrics released a position paper flatly stating that children younger than 16 should not operate snowmobiles. Citing federal statistics, the report noted that of the more than 10,000 snowmobile injuries treated in emergency rooms in 1997 and 1998, 10 percent occurred in children under the age of 15. Younger drivers are more prone to accidents, whether they're in a car or on a snowmobile, explains Dr. Murray Katcher, a consultant on the study and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison.

Snowmobile enthusiasts counter that Minnesota already has one of the best safety training programs nationally. Nancy Hanson, business coordinator for the Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association, doesn't believe that the existing laws need to be revised. "Minnesota has a very good training program and the training program is for [kids] 12 years old and up and we feel, for that age group, that's appropriate," says Hanson. For younger kids, she says, safety "is the parent's responsibility."

In any case, it doesn't appear that there would be much enthusiasm for reviving a snowmobile-safety discussion at the Legislature. "I don't think people are going to want to revisit the legislation as far as more safety," says Rep. Doug Peterson (DFL-Madison), the architect of many of the 1997 changes to state law. "Can you say that no kid can be on a snowmobile at a certain age? I guess you can, but that's not going to happen."

Tragic as individual cases may be, Peterson adds, accidents are bound to happen and new laws can't prevent that. Plus, he continues, snowmobiles are a big part of winter recreational culture in Minnesota, home to the only two U.S.-based manufacturers of the machines: Polaris Industries, Inc., of Plymouth, and Arctic Cat, Inc., in Thief River Falls.

Back at White Bear High, Michael Kane surveys the room solemnly. "I'm going to talk about alcohol," he says. "You have a couple of drinks, it's night, and you're off on your snowmobile."

Hands extended, he pretends to straddle a snowmobile, feigning a look around at the nighttime scenery. Then he twists the knife slowly: "Maybe they'll see the snowdrift and think, 'Wouldn't it be neat to jump?'" He tells of a snowmobiler who was thrown 100 feet from his machine, and another who was thrown 300 feet. "If I remember right, that person had been drinking," he says of the latter case.

By now he has everyone's attention. "All of a sudden you hit something and you're pushin' up daisies," he says matter-of-factly. "You're dead." Class dismissed.

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