Importance of snowmobile safety

A smowmobile rides across Lake Colby. (Enterprise file photo — Lou Reuter)

It seems like every time I pick up a newspaper or turn on the radio or TV, I hear about another snowmobile accident, with the number of fatalities now approaching five times that of the four deaths that occurred during the 2015-16 season.

Several of the accidents that I’m aware of involved excessive speed, resulting in collisions with trees, rocks, guardrails, non-recreational vehicles and other sleds. Two were head-on collisions. At the time of this writing, at least 10 snowmobilers have died after their machines plunged through thin ice into bitter-cold lakes, ponds, and rivers. Numerous others have fallen through the ice and survived. Fatal accidents occurred in Cattauraugus, Chautauqua, Chenango, Franklin, Fulton, Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Madison, Oswego, Saratoga, and Washington counties.

Many of the casualties were experienced riders. The lesson here is this. Even the most experienced snowmobilers can make mistakes. And whether you are a beginner or an old hand, things can go wrong.

According to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, there are over 1.2 million registered snowmobiles in the U.S. and over 600,000 in Canada. In 2016, 56,006 snowmobiles were sold in the U.S.; 44,431 in Canada. ISMA says that snowmobilers pump about $26 billion annually into local economies in the United States and $8 billion into local economies in Canada ($868 million in New York, according the New York State Snowmobile Association), with purchases of fuel, food, accommodations, equipment, and retail shopping. The average snowmobiler spends $4,000 each year on snowmobile-related recreation.

Snowmobiling provides great opportunities for (family) recreation during the winter months. It’s a healthy form of recreational activity that combines sightseeing with adventure.

Almost all snowsledders experience the beauty and the freedom of the open trail on public access snowmobile trail systems. And northern New York is home to thousands of miles of interconnected, public access snowmobile trails. But, with that freedom and riding enjoyment comes considerable responsibility; not just for our own safety, but for the safety of other trail users; snowmobilers and non-snowmobilers alike (cross-country skiers, snowshoers, dog-sledders). Being safety conscious and courteous to other trail users at all times is an essential part of snowmobiling.

Before hitting the trail, it’s imperative that you acquire all of the skills needed to safely operate a snowmobile; that you have at least a basic understanding of the mechanical functioning of your snowmobile; that you fully appreciate your responsibilities as a snowmobiler and behave accordingly; that you are willing to help foster proper attitudes toward snowmobiling, public trail systems, and the environment, and that you recognize the value of and become familiar with fundamental winter survival skills. You must also understand and obey all of the laws governing snowmobiling; not just the written laws that carry penalties for non-compliance, but the universally accepted guidelines, as well.

The basics

Don’t drink and drive. Snowmobilers that drink, frequently drive too fast. Consumption of alcohol and excessive speed are the two most common contributing factors in fatal snowmobile accidents. And alcohol can cause your body temperature to drop at an accelerated rate, increasing vulnerability to cold & hypothermia.

Drive defensively. Snowmobile related injuries and fatalities often occur as a result of riding on highways and roads, riding on ice or on unfamiliar terrain, and / or riding after dark. Staying on marked trails or, where permitted, on the right shoulder of the road is the best way to avoid unseen hazards. Keep an eye out for obstacles such as branches, tree stumps, boulders, and fence wire, all of which may be hidden by or buried in deep snow.

Always operate your sled at speeds that are reasonable and prudent. You could suddenly run into wildlife, oncoming sleds, grooming equipment, open water, unsafe ice, etc.

Take additional precautions after dark, when forward visibility is reduced, and when the likelihood of becoming disoriented or lost is greatest.

Stay on top of changing weather, and ice and snow conditions. And dress in layers. This will allow you to add or remove clothing as conditions change. Avoid wearing cotton.

Wear a helmet that is the right size, in good condition, and safety certified, preferably with a face shield that will protect you from frostbite, flying debris, and other hazards.

Whenever possible, ride with at least one friend or family member. There is safety in numbers. And always make sure that someone knows where you are going and when you will return.

The manufacturer’s tool kit and owner’s manual, and a spare drive belt and spark plugs should be kept with your sled at all times. Consider packing a spare ignition key, cellphone, first aid kit, maps, compass, extra clothing, work gloves, tow rope, flashlight, high energy snacks, (folding) saw, axe, sharp knife, wire, duct tape, pry bar, and lighter or waterproof matches.

New York state law states that “Youth ages 10 through 13 may operate a snowmobile, on lands upon which snowmobiling is allowed, if they have completed a snowmobile safety training course recognized by the State of New York and are accompanied by (within 500 feet of) a person who is at least 18 years of age,” and that “Youth ages 14 through 17 years old may operate a snowmobile without adult or other supervision if they have completed a snowmobile safety training. If youth ages 14 through 17 years have not completed the training course, they may operate a snowmobile if accompanied by (within 500 feet of) a person who is at least 18 years of age.” No safety course is required for riders 18 years old and older.

For more than a decade, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County provided snowmobile safety training courses to our region’s youth. That course is now available at

Snowmobiling allows us to recognize, appreciate and respect the unequaled and unspoiled beauty of the Adirondack Mountains and the Champlain and St. Lawrence Valleys while savoring the adventure, exhilaration and freedom of the open trail. If we all agree to adhere to a few basic guiding principles, snowmobiling can be a safe sport that everyone can recognize the value of and enjoy.