Harsher snowmobile laws are necessary

With spring’s arrival, the 1996-97 snowmobile season is ending. Across the Midwest, this was the sport’s deadliest winter in 25 years. In response to the fatalities, state legislators in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan have debated possible new regulations for snowmobiles. But so far no bills have been passed, because lawmakers are afraid of threatening the lucrative tourism trade that the sport generates.
Minnesota is a case in point. According to Department of Natural Resources records, 32 people died in snowmobile accidents this winter, including four minors. Although this is a relatively small number compared to automobile fatalities — which have averaged close to 500 per year in recent years — the increase in snowmobile-related deaths during the past two decades is cause for concern for several reasons.
First, the sport continues to experience a rapid increase in popularity. There are more vehicles out on the trails every year — 700,000 registered snowmobiles in the upper Midwest states for 1996 — and thus more potential for accidents. Furthermore, today’s vehicles are more powerful and faster than ever before — some can achieve speeds of more than 100 mph and accelerate from zero to 60 mph in four seconds. Finally, and perhaps most serious, is the prevalence of alcohol use with a significant minority of snowmobile drivers. For this winter, half of the fatalities have a confirmed alcohol connection and several others are still being investigated.
Despite this, there is little regulation currently in place for snowmobilers. On private property, anyone — even small children — can operate a snowmobile. On public land, youth are required to be older than 13 and take a safety course to drive alone. Adults, however, face very few restrictions or requirements. There are 50 mph speed limits and laws against operating a snowmobile while under the influence, but these rules are hard to enforce and tend to be weak.
But now, growing public demand for stricter control has focused attention on these inadequate laws. Legislators are listening to calls for mandatory operator’s licenses, liability insurance and training classes similar to driver’s education courses required for automobile operation. Yet lawmakers are hesitating. They fear backlash from tavern and resort owners in their districts as well as from many snowmobile owners who enjoy the current lack of restrictions. They’re also clinging to the hope that snowmobilers will regulate themselves.
But the statistics belie such optimistic beliefs. The government needs to take steps to protect people from snowmobilers, and snowmobilers from each other and themselves.
There must be heavier policing of high-traffic snowmobile routes and stricter enforcement of the existing laws. But the most important step legislators should take is to mandate operator’s licenses and safety classes. Snowmobiles are as fast and dangerous as motorcycles, which require a special license to operate. They should be held to the same standard.
Snowmobiling is a fun, exhilarating sport, but it is too dangerous to continue to be so unregulated. If legislators don’t act now, the number of deaths will grow every year.