Recent deaths push sled fatalities to 19

Associate Editor

Little Falls, Minn. Four deaths last weekend increased the
number of snowmobile fatalities to 19 in the state this season.

Factors contributing to the fatalities are familiar ones,
according to Capt. Jeff Theilen, education coordinator for the
Minnesota DNR.

“With each accident, people are going too fast,” he said. “Some
are involved in collisions, some roll their snowmobile, and often,
alcohol is involved.”

For each of the past three seasons, the number of snowmobile
fatalities has been fewer than 20, largely because of the lack of
snow. With snowfall this season exceeding the average, more
sledders hit the trails.

“There are simply more people out there,” Theilen said. “Some
haven’t snowmobiled before; some haven’t taken a snowmobile safety
course.”

Fewer snowmobiling accidents have been attributed this year to
open water encounters, especially by nighttime snowmobilers,
according to John Pruzak, editor of Snowmobiler and Snow Goer
magazines.

“There’s just less open water this year than in past years,” he
said.

Two 15-year-olds have died in snowmobile crashes this season.
Young teens have comprised an age group that’s had a high accident
rate the past five or six years, Theilen said.

“A lot of them don’t have licenses, and most are just
inexperienced,” he said. “It’s sad; I don’t know if 15-year-olds
should be operating (snowmobiles.)”

In Minnesota, youths may legally operate snowmobiles at age 12
if they’ve completed safety training. This year, all operators born
after Dec. 31, 1979, must have passed the course to operate.

Next year, that date becomes Dec. 31, 1976, meaning all
snowmobile operators 25 and younger must be certified, said Nancy
Hanson, business coordinator for MN-USA, a statewide snowmobile
association with 300 club members and about 7,000 non-club
members.

Snowmobile safety classes are taught by club members, as well as
some DNR instructors.

Many of the fatal crashes have occurred on lakes, where speed is
almost always the main factor.

“At high speeds, drivers experience perceptual narrowing,”
Theilen said. “That means the faster you’re driving, the narrower
your field of vision.”

That’s one element emphasized during youth and adult snowmobile
safety training. Adult classes were developed by studying
snowmobile crashes, Theilen said.

“We teach (adults) how not to be involved in fatal crashes,” he
said.

The adult classes were mandated by the Legislature following the
1996-97 winter season in which 32 people died in snowmobile
crashes.

“We still haven’t seen the turnout we’d like,” Theilen said.
“But the information we provide in four hours could save a lot of
lives.”

Approximately 285,000 sleds hit the trails of Minnesota this
year. That’s up from a slower period during the 1980, but nearly
the same as periods during the 1970s snowmobiling’s original
heydays.

The season of 1971-72 matched the recorded high in
snowmobile-related deaths in 1996-97.

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