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July 23, 2007 – Top U.S. snow markets eye speed limits

July 23, 2007
Filed under Features

Efforts to reduce fatal accidents involving snowmobiles have been a priority for the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, three of the top snowmobile markets in the United States.
Drunk driving is the cause for many accidents, but speed also plays a role. The states have taken widely divergent paths in trying to curb snowmobile fatalities by reducing top speeds. Many riders consider snowmobiles one of the final frontiers of personal freedom and have fought speed limits, so legislation (or lack thereof) has been all over the map.
“A big part of my job is to reduce the number of fatalities however possible,” says Gary Eddy, ATV/snowmobile administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “We lead the nation in (snowmobile) deaths year after year, and it’s not something we want Wisconsin known for.”
Snowmobile deaths in Wisconsin dropped to 26 from 39 the year after DNR officials issued an emergency rule setting a nighttime speed limit of 50 mph, which replaced a “reasonable and prudent” measure.
The rule expired after the 2000-2001 snowmobile season. But when deaths reached 36 during the ’05-’06 season, the legislature took action, setting a 55 mph nighttime speed limit that was suggested by DNR officials working with the state snowmobile association. The original legislation was for two years but the approved version cut that to one year. The measure expired in June, following a snowmobile season where 26 people lost their lives, a 28 percent decrease.
“We didn’t have the best winter for a comparison of the effect of a nighttime speed limit,” says Eddy, noting the lack of consistent snow during the ’06-’07 season. Eddy says that the 12-year average for snowmobile fatalities in the state is 26.
Studies have shown that once a snowmobile exceeds 55 mph at night, the driver is going faster than the headlights can illuminate anything in his path, making obstacles impossible to avoid at that speed, Eddy says. However, many snowmobilers object to speed limits and have fought efforts to make a nighttime speed limit permanent.
“A speed limit for the most part is really trying to address nighttime collisions and accidents,” Eddy says, but it also gives enforcement officials another reason to stop snowmobile drivers to check for alcohol use. “I was on patrol last winter and definitely saw a change in operators. Speeds were significantly slower, and we saw a significant drop in fatalities and injuries.”
The speed limit in Minnesota day or night has been 50 mph for years, says 2nd Lt. Leland Owens, recreational vehicle coordinator for the state DNR. But after 58 people were killed on snowmobiles during the winters of 1995 and 1996, the state legislature toughened laws about drinking and operating recreational equipment. First offenders might be booked and released with just a ticket for operating a snowmobile, ATV or boat with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or higher, but the offense goes on their vehicular driving record.
In the intervening decade, the average number of fatalities has dropped to 16.5 per year. “We think (tough drunk-driving laws) definitely have helped,” Owens says. “Other things have been helping, too, including some very dry winters.”
Snowmobiles must abide by other posted signs, including those on public lands, public waters and marked trails. Additionally, snowmobiles are permitted to operate in ditches along state roads but must abide by the speed limit on the road if it’s lower than the snowmobile speed limit.
One disturbing trend is the number of Minnesota snowmobilers who are killed by avalanches while riding in other states. Owens says the DNR is looking to increase education in that area to keep riders safe wherever they ride.
Michigan has the most registered snowmobiles in the country at 314,000, and tough drinking-and-driving laws have cut the state’s fatalities to 24 last year, down from 50 seven years ago, says Bill Manson, executive director of the Michigan Snowmobile Association. However, 19 of those fatalities were linked to drunk driving.
Like Minnesota’s DWI law, Michigan sets the same penalties and points for driving drunk on a snowmobile as driving a motor vehicle. In Michigan, however, DWI accidents that result in a major injury also can land the offender in prison for seven years. If the accident results in a fatality, prison time doubles. “With these standards, I don’t believe people still drink and drive,” Manson says.
Michigan does have speed limits on plowed shoulders and on trails within villages and towns, but most areas are guided by a “reasonable and prudent for conditions” rule. psb

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