Snowmobile safety paramount as season gets underway
This winter may see the earliest snowmobile start date ever in Oneida County.
On that note, law enforcement is urging participants to put safety first for what every indication says will be a very long season.
Though nothing is official, the trails may open as early as Dec. 12, a few days earlier than the standard target date of Dec. 15.
Already club members are finalizing maps and putting up signs, soon to begin the early stages of the grooming process.
This weekend will begin safety classes held by the Sheriff’s Department for anyone over the age of 12. Anyone older than 12 or born after Jan. 1, 1985, is required by state law to have a safety certificate in order to operate a snowmobile on public trails and lakes.
“Because before, ten years ago, when you turned sixteen you didn’t need to have snowmobile safety,” said Brad Fogerty, recreational safety officer with the Sheriff’s Department. “But then we looked back at the stats, you look at the number of crashes with the age group, it was the sixteens and aboves that never had to take the class.”
Before, meaning before the law requiring safety certificates for adults went into effect, saw fatality numbers in the high 30s for the state, and Oneida and Vilas counties were consistently leading fatality statistics.
Last year, Oneida County saw zero fatalities. A result of not only the increased effort with safety courses, but an increase in active law enforcement patrolling.
“In 2006 we actually started our rec safety program full time,” Fogerty said. “And I think that just our presence out there, and the education part of it, I think that’s had a lot to do with it.”
Last season there were 236,248 registered snowmobiles, and 23 deaths across the state. Beyond the fatalities, Oneida County experienced just 16 of the 181 total injury accidents. However, 16 was the second highest for a single county, right behind Vilas County at 18,
“One of the trends is before we started this, a lot of our complaints and crashes were younger riders. But now, since we’ve poured a lot into the education part of this, we’re kind of seeing that trend go down,” Fogerty said. “Everyone thinks that the kids are the ones out there causing all the problems, and it’s actually not. It’s the opposite, it’s my age group and above that never took, had to take the safety classes.”
In his safety class, Fogerty teaches that there are three main factors in snowmobile accidents: speed, alcohol, inexperience and being unfamiliar with the terrain.
“Speed and alcohol are probably the biggest,” said James Jung, DNR Warden for Oneida County. “Many fatalities in Wisconsin incolve speed and alcohol.”
“The alcohol part’s always going to be there,” Fogerty said. “Speed and alcohol, they don’t mix, especially on a snowmobile, because there’s no seatbelts, no airbags.”
The rules for drinking and driving are the same on a snowmobile as in a car, which is something that many forget as they’re sledding from trailside bar to trailside bar. Last season there were 64 OWI arrests in, and more than half of the fatalities involved alcohol.
“We’ve got 1100 square miles, probably 1500, 2000 miles of snowmobile trail systems in the county,” Fogerty said.
Both the DNR wardens and the Sheriff’s recreational safety officers patrol during the season, and in the 2013 to 2014 year 138 tickets were issued statewide for operating without a safety certificate.