Snowmobile Enthusiasts Urge Safety On Trails

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(Host) Over the past two months, six people have died on snowmobiles in Vermont – including three people who died over the weekend when their snowmobiles broke through ice on Lake Dunmore. 

So snowmobile enthusiasts and law enforcement officers kicked off a safety campaign in Hinesburg on Tuesday.

VPR’s Sarah Ashworth was there, and has more.

(Ashworth) During the winter months, the sounds of snowmobiles can be heard on trails all across the area.

(snowmobile sound)

Their motors rev, their skis carve through a turn, and then the sleds cruise through an open field.  Mike Major is a captain with the Chittenden County Sheriff’s office. And he loves the sport.

(Major) "For me, I just like getting on the trail, there’s no cell phones, there’s no pagers, it’s you and the snowmobile.  There’s nothing like going out at night under the moonlight, it’s very nice.  You’re out in nature."

(Ashworth) But for snowmobilers enjoying the ride this year, it’s been especially dangerous.  During the months of December and January, six people have died while riding in Vermont. Police say that’s worrisome. Sergeant J.R. Underhill is with the State Police. 

(Underhill) "I think what catches us off guard now is that it’s happening this early in the season.  Our first fatality was Christmas Eve, nine days into the opening of the season.  It catches us off guard."

(Ashworth) The recent accidents are still under investigation, and Underhill says he doesn’t yet know how many, if any, involved alcohol.  But for law enforcement, drinking while driving is a major concern.  Last year, three people were prosecuted for snowmobiling while intoxicated.  The legal limit for operating a snowmobile is the same as for driving a car — .08. But Underhill says the best practice is to not drink at all.

(Underhill) "That’s why we’re advocating a zero alcohol campaign that delivers a clear ride alcohol free message to snowmobilers, and even though it’s not a legal requirement, these recent tragedies prove that zero alcohol is a smart choice to make snowmobiling safe." 

(Ashworth) To monitor snowmobilers, the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, or VAST, has contracted with state police, fish and wildlife agents and sheriffs to patrol trails.  Most officers are out on the weekends, and last year they handed out several hundred citations for violations like driving recklessly, or driving without liability insurance.   It’s a partnership that VAST Executive Director Bryant Watson says works smoothly, but can’t always prevent every tragedy.  He says the recent accident on Lake Dunmore is a reminder that lake ice should never be trusted.

(Watson) "In general, we try to keep all trails off frozen bodies of water.  The only safe way to even begin to know is to try to talk with local individuals who are around in those areas, ice fishermen who are out there who might know what the depth of the ice is.  And, to just take it for granted that the ice is safe is not making a safe choice." 

(Ashworth) It appears that the riders on Lake Dunmore did check the ice first, but Bryant says ice conditions can change quickly.

Somewhere between 35,000 and 45,000 snowmobilers hit the trails in Vermont each winter.  And, members of the State Police and VAST say they’re hoping those snowmobilers  make safety a top priority, so they won’t see any more fatality reports this year.

For VPR News, I’m Sarah Ashworth.

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