Defensive Snowmobiling: Snowmobiling safely and courteously

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Podcasts

Defensive Snowmobiling: Snowmobiling safely and courteously .mp3 (2.65 Mb) 1/22/09

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Steve Carroll:

Hi everyone and welcome to the DNR's podcast on snowmobile safety. I'm your host, Steve Carroll, and we're joined in studio by DNR Conservation Officer Leland Owens and Les Ollila, DNR Parks and Trails Supervisor, who joins us by phone from Grand Rapids.

Welcome Leland and Les.

Leland Owens:

Thank you for having us.

Les Ollila:

Hi there.

SC:

Let's start with you Les. And I understand you're an avid snowmobiler, you've been out on the trails. Has it been a good year for snowmobiling?

Les:

This has been a wonderful year. I think we've got snow pretty much everywhere in the state and people are out enjoying it.

SC:

How about the extreme temperatures we've been having? Has that been good for the sport?

Les:

I'm sure it's kept a lot of people indoors. We've had some thirty-five degree below zero temperatures up here and people don't go out when it's like that.

SC:

And the equipment today is not like it certainly was in the olden days. The sleds go faster and more powerful. What kind of problems does that create?

Les:

Well, they have improved the equipment a lot and they're a lot easier to drive, there's more power, they go faster and what it does, it kind of allows people to go faster and cover more ground. And of course when you go faster you get out of control a little faster than you planned on too.

SC:

Right. What are some suggestions or some things that you've seen from some riders when you've been out on the trails as far as the speed?

Les:

Well, I've seen a lot of riders, because they're riding these new sleds and they can go faster, they feel like they're kind of racing. It's kind of an opportunity, but people forget that that trail is shared by everybody. And my biggest concern is those folks that think they're on a racetrack and they're coming around corners on the wrong side, they're passing people when they shouldn't. It's a big courtesy thing.

SC:

Leland, from the enforcement standpoint, what are you folks seeing this year?

Leland:

Well, we see a lot of the same that Les mentioned about. We want to get the message across that the state trails out there are not racetracks and we really need people to slow down. In our line of work, of course, we're out there, we do work with radar guns, and there is a statewide speed limit of 50 miles an hour and there's some other exceptions to that. So we're out there enforcing those laws and the careless and reckless operational laws that relate to snowmobile operation.

SC:

How about this year? Has it been up, down, the same?

Leland:

Well, it's about the same. You know, like Les mentioned it's a great snow year. Our 08-09 snowmobiling season got off to a great start. Most of the state has good, rideable snow and that means people are out in full force. They dig out those sleds, they get their registration on them, and get out and enjoy the trails. And we're all for that, but like Les said, people forget how fast they're going and with some of the newer technology - the suspension, hand warmers on the sled, windshields – that it's easy to get too comfortable on the sled. And I've talked to many people who look down and suddenly see that they're going way too fast for the conditions.

SC:

Talk to me a little bit about reaction time and distance, in relation to distance.

Leland:

Sure. A common thing is people over-driving their abilities on snowmobiles. And, if you think about it Steve, it happens to us everyday when we drive our cars and trucks on the highways. We have a great line of sight down the roadways, thanks to DOT and how they build the roads, and we're able to see hazards and identify them, slow down, and drive according to conditions. People tend to forget those basic things when they're out there on the trail.

Traveling at 40 miles an hour down one of our trails, you're covering approximately 200 feet every few seconds. And at 40 miles an hour, especially at night with the headlight of a snowmobile shining out in front, the average person cannot visualize and identify a hazard and formulate a plan to react and then put that reaction into play before they would hit that hazard. So at 40 to 45 miles an hour that's right on that cutting edge where people are able to stop in time and avoid the hazard. Anything faster than that, at night now, driving your snowmobile, there's going to be an accident to some degree.

SC:

Is this what you mean by over-driving your headlights?

Leland:

Correct, yep. We see people doing that out on the highways and byways. We see them doing that on the trails too. And people need to remember that our trails are only approximately anywhere from 8 to 12-13 feet in width and they are meant for enjoyment and low speed. There's a lot of corners, hills, there's rocks, there's trees right next to the trail. So there's a lot of fixed objects and obstacles out there that people need to be aware of and take into consideration before they just, you know kind of, gun it and go.

SC:

Les, let's talk to you a little bit about, we hear an awful lot about defensive driving when you're in your automobile. A lot of those same things apply when you're out in your snowmobile as well.

Les:

Well, it certainly does. As a rider myself, fairly quickly you become conscious that there are people that probably aren't in total control and you have to control your sled and know where people are coming from. For instance, sometimes people will come around a corner at you around the wrong side of the corner and, you know, they're just not aware of other people, they're going too fast. You can't do much about that so you have to kind of peek around the corners and take it easy yourself and look. Another thing about defensive driving is also if you stop you've got to stay over to the right side, because people are coming by and they're not always paying attention to you. So, defensive driving is really how we have to all act, got to realize there's other people out there. And the rules might not seem quite the same because you don't have a stripe down the middle of the road so you know which side is yours. You have to understand you have one side and they have the other and you have to watch out for the other guy.

SC:

What about snowmobile courtesy?

Les:

Well, courtesy that's a big thing and if you're out riding now you can see a lot more groups using hand signals, letting the other group that they're meeting know how many are behind them, what's going on. Courtesy is a big thing for me thinking about families because you need to feel comfortable out there. For instance, like you're passing. I've had a lot of families talk to me about they were pretty afraid out there because all of a sudden they're going down the trail, going nicely and enjoying the day, and somebody comes whizzing by them and they didn't even know they were there. They look over their left shoulder and as they're looking over their left shoulder they turn. And this could be an accident. So a lot of people just are not aware of what's going on behind them. To me when somebody said, "I didn't know they were there," I asked them, "did you have a mirror? Did you know that's one way to know they're there?"

SC:

Right. What are some of the common hand signals people use or should use?

Les:

Common hand signals are just like car hand signals or bicycle hand signals. The only addition is that the lead rider and the other riders will signal how many riders are behind them. And all the snowmobile publications and info spots on the websites all have those hand signals in there. But basically if you think you're driving a bicycle or a car, they're real similar.

SC:

And Leland as we talk about snowmobile training and snowmobile safety, the DNR offers a snowmobile training course. Talk a little bit about that if you could.

Leland:

Yes we do, Steve. The public is encouraged to take snowmobile safety training. Residents in our State of Minnesota born after December 31st of 1976 must have a snowmobile safety certificate in their possession to legally operate a snowmobile anywhere in our state.

So for the youth we currently have a number of snowmobile youth safety classes listed on the DNR website. And for those who are 16 years of age and older, they can basically take a CD course that they can contact the DNR, they can get a CD for free. That CD can be used by multiple people and they can pop it into the computer. It takes a few hours to complete. We suggest that they do it during a couple, three different settings to think about the material, study the material, and they simply take the test off of the CD, they send in their results, and we correct it. If they pass we send them their certificate.

It's a good thing to do. Even if maybe you snowmobiled ten, twenty years ago and now are just getting back into it as far as outdoor winter recreation, you can always learn something. So we encourage everybody to brush up on their snowmobile safety skills and take that CD.

SC:

As a rule, or maybe there's not a rule, but what's the etiquette like out there? I mean, are people obeying? I suppose you've always got people that violate the law.

Leland:

Sure. Like Les was describing, I too have spoken to husbands and wives who were out snowmobiling with the family and who were frustrated and scared about some of the behavior of those small percentage of snowmobile operators. And I guess we could liken it to, unfortunately, road-rage and poor ethical behavior on our highways and byways. Some of that carries over to our snowmobile trails also and we are there in those certain areas of trails where we have complaints and problems where people are taking the corners too fast, too sharp. And we try and educate them and catch them and, you know, make them aware of how they should be, lawfully and carefully, driving.

SC:

What role does alcohol play in snowmobiling?

Leland:

Well, unfortunately in the accidents and fatalities we see in our state, Steve, the three main factors involved are speed, alcohol, and nighttime operation. Those are the big three. I think since our bad snowmobile season of 96-97, when we had 32 fatalities in our state, the new laws that were passed after that have helped to get the word out. And currently if you get arrested for a DUI and convicted of a DUI on your snowmobile, that will affect your driver's license. And if you have a DUI on your driver's license from operating your car or truck on the highway or byways we consider that if we've arrested you for one on your snowmobile. That's two, they're not two separate.

And basically the state legislature recognized that that drinking and driving behavior, for many who do it, carry over into their recreational activities. So there's pretty stiff penalties. And of course we're a 0.08 state like the other states as far as the level of alcohol and the blood alcohol content in the body.

SC:

And that's for snowmobiles too, right?

Leland:

Oh yes, it's no different. So we discourage drinking and riding. Drive safe and drive sober.

SC:

Very good. Les, as you talk about trails and trail safety, signs are a big part of it. Why don't you, if you could, tell us a few of the common signs people see out on the trails.

Les:

Well, there's not a lot of different kinds of signs. The arrows are orange arrows usually posted ahead of the corner so people know that it's a sharp corner, but not all the corners are marked. So people have to pay attention to those. Usually the ones that have the signs on them are the real sharp ones, but people need to remember that not every corner is marked. We've got yield signs for coming up to another trail or a road crossing. There's stop signs. And then there's a stop-ahead sign that's put out about 300 feet ahead of the stop sign to warn people of that stop.

The stop sign is probably the most important sign we have out there because, you know, you come up to a road crossing and there might be snow banks, you might not be able to see, and if you don't know that road is there you can't stop in time. So that's probably one of our biggest, biggest signs.

There's also signs out there the clubs put out to tell you how far you are to one place or another or what's coming ahead. There's a few caution signs out there and you really need to pay attention to those because there could be a logging road that you're coming up to, there could be ice formed when water comes up on top and freezes and you could have an icy spot that you could lose control on if you're not aware of it, there may be a tough bridge crossing that they need you to slow down for. But those caution signs are just for those real serious, serious things. So signs are pretty important. There's reassurance markers to let you know you're on a trail and all they are are a little diamond, a little orange diamond. And everything is reflectorized so you can see them at night.

SC:

And then who maintains the trails? The DNR or the various clubs?

Les:

Well, it's a combination but the snowmobile clubs in Minnesota maintain the bulk of the miles of trails. They maintain over 20,000 miles of trails themselves and the DNR has a couple thousand miles. So it's a lot of volunteers out there, volunteer club members, working on those trails.

SC:

Very good. So you're message to Minnesotans is get out and enjoy the trails and be safe.

Les:

And can I add something else?

SC:

Sure.

Les:

Two other things. You know this snowmobiling is a family sport and I would like to see people remember that when they're out there, there are families out there, to be careful and be courteous to them. We want those kids to grow up knowing that snowmobiling is a lot of fun and not scary. And that's, to me, my biggest message.

And I've got a little message from our groomer operators. We started this talking about the big new equipment and a lot of power and now a lot of tracks have deeper treads on them. These big, powerful machines can create some problems on the trail by creating ruts or what we call "pilots" is when somebody accelerates quickly, digs a hole in the snow, makes a pile, and it freezes. Another snowmobiler comes along and can hit that pile and kind of lose a little control. It makes it very uncomfortable and they're hard to groom. That's the other thing. Our groomer operators they work very hard and they're usually working out there in the middle of the night grooming trying to make things smooth. There's these aggressive riders with the powerful machines can throw the snow, and they often throw the snow right off of the trail on the corners into the woods just by powering around those corners. And when that snow is thrown off we have less snow to work with to groom to have a smooth trail. So if people would think about that a little bit it would really help our grooming program.

SC:

Alright, good advice. Leland, as we wrap things up here you wanted to talk a little bit about speed limits.

Leland:

Yeah, I just wanted to touch base and really encourage Minnesotans to slow down after sundown especially on those snowmobiles.

And I can't talk about snowmobiling without mentioning ice safety too. Stay on the trail. Make sure you know that lake ice and don't go, especially at night, don't go blazing new trails. Stay away from, you know, dams, bridges, anyplace where there's an inlet or an outlet on that body of water chances are that ice is going to be thinner and weaker. And be prepared out there. And we too, you know, our conservation officers along with other law enforcement throughout the State of Minnesota are working hard to try and maintain, you know, safety and courtesy out there and enforcing the laws when they see the violations. But the real safety lies with each individual operator to be courteous out there and obedient to the laws that are on the books.

SC:

OK. Well, very good. Well, that will conclude our program on snowmobile safety brought to you by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

I want to thank our guests today, Conservation Officer Leland Owens from DNR Enforcement and Les Ollila from the Parks and Trails Division out of Grand Rapids.

For more information about snowmobile safety visit the DNR website at mndnr.gov.

And thank you for listening. I'm Steve Carroll with the Minnesota DNR.