On the Trail to Staying Alive

February 17, 2017 08:09 AM

With over 40,000 miles of trails across the Northland, Northlander Phillip Lockett said it's easy for snowmobiling to become a lifestyle.

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"It's a great family sport, you can get out. As you can see we've got a beautiful day here," Lockett said.

Snowmobiling is a sport that many Northlanders become familiar with at a young age, and Lockett's love for the sport started early. 

"I started snowmobiling when I was very young, probably about 3 years old with my mom and dad," he said.

No matter what age you first hop on a sled, dangerous situations can arise that even the most experienced snowmobiler can't prepare for, even for someone as experienced as Locket. 

"I mean we've come around the corner at night time and there's a moose on the trail, that'll get your attention real fast," he said.

The thrill of the ride also comes with a risk. During the 2015/2016 season, three snowmobile fatalities were reported in Minnesota, and nine fatalities were reported in Wisconsin. Speed and alcohol were factors.

"Alcohol [and] driving at night while speeding are our two biggest things that cause accidents on snowmobiles," Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Scott Staples explained.

In fact, alcohol is a factor in over 70 percent of all fatal and non-fatal snowmobile accidents in the state of Minnesota.

Alcohol was also involved in six out of the nine fatalities reported in the state of Wisconsin during the 2015/2016 season. Staples said mixing drinking and snowmobiling is more dangerous than you might think.

"The alcohol really does impair your judgment even more so on a snowmobile than any other vehicle, because really, it slows your judgment," he said.

Accident reports show that most snowmobiles are operating too fast.

"One of our biggest violations is probably speeding. In the state of Minnesota, it's a maximum of 50 mph on all trials, on all public lands and waters unless it's posted otherwise," Staples explained.

According to the Minnesota DNR, at 50 mph, riders need at least 300 feet to come to a complete stop.

So, what's the leading cause of death on a snowmobile? Staples said striking a fixed object. 

Luckily, conservation officers are beginning to notice a trend over the recent years, Regional Training Officer with the Minnesota DNR, Mike Lee, explained.

"The injuries and fatalities have dropped drastically. Even since the mid-90s snowmobile fatalities have dropped huge amounts just because of the safety program," Lee said.

Required by law, any Minnesota resident born after December 31, 1976 has to have training to operate a snowmobile on public lands and trails.

In Wisconsin, any resident born after January 1, 1985 must also complete a snowmobile safety course to operate a snowmobile on lands and trails in the state.

Lee said the numbers are improving.

"Within just 2016, there were over 7,000 kids who completed the snowmobile safety program," he said.

One of the contributing factors of snowmobile fatalities is the operator not being safety certified. That was the case in eight out of the nine fatalities reported in the state of Wisconsin during the 2015/2016 season.

The safety course covers topics like signs on the trails, laws and regulations, common parts and controls, and how to operate safely and responsibly.

Lee said they it goes even more in depth than that.

"They go over survival in case something happens, they get into a crash or their snowmobile breaks down, [and] they go over survival in the winter."

Youth ages 11-15 are even required to complete a 'hands on' riding course.

"It's not just someone hopping on a snowmobile and going for a ride, now kids are learning how to ride them," Lee said, adding that's all thanks to local volunteers. 

"They don't receive any reimbursement. It's just because they have a passion for their sport and they want to make sure everyone is safe doing it," he explained.

"It's a great benefit. Both my wife and I are snowmobile safety instructors. We teach classes periodically," Locket said of his experience teaching snowmobile safety.

A safety certification that lasts a lifetime, and one day, could save a life.

Lockett also has a few words of advice for beginner riders.

"Take it easy, slow down, these are very fast machines. And, bring your brain with you; a little common sense goes a long way."


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