LANSING — Near-record snowfall in Michigan created a banner year for snow-related sports, but snowmobile fatalities haven’t climbed with the piles of snow.
Nine snowmobile fatalities were reported this season as of mid-February, said Cpl. John Morey, the Department of Natural Resources’ off-road vehicle and snowmobile coordinator. By about this time last year, 13 fatal snowmobile accidents had taken place.
An additional fatal accident not yet on the department record happened Feb. 19 in Luce County, according to the sheriff’s department.
In the 2012-2013 season, 23 snowmobile accident fatalities were reported across 19 counties. Wexford, Cheboygan and Roscommon counties each had more than one.
Six of the fatal accidents in the 2012-2013 season were in the Upper Peninsula; the rest were in the upper half of the Lower Peninsula.
Of the nine accidents this season, three were in the Upper Peninsula and six were in the upper half of the Lower Peninsula.
Most snowmobile trails are in those areas.
Heavy snow this winter has made for ideal and perhaps safer snowmobiling conditions, said Bill Manson, the executive director of the Michigan Snowmobile Association.
Manson said consistent snow across the state makes for safer conditions. Popular snow trails aren’t being overrun and snowmobilers are in less of a rush to fit in recreation on particularly snowy days.
“There’s not as much craziness,” Manson said. “People are doing the right things.”
Manson said there has been increasing safety in past decades, especially since laws were changed to penalize drunken snowmobilers with a notice on their driving record. No other state has a similar law, he said.
Sheriff’s departments in Wexford and Cheboygan counties confirmed they’ve seen fewer or at least no notable rise in accidents this year.
Speed, lack of helmets and driving under the influence of alcohol are common factors in snowmobile accidents, Morey said.
Of the 23 reported fatal accidents in the 2012-2013 season, about 15 involved alcohol or drug impairment, according to statistics.
So far, one of the nine fatal accidents reported by the department this season has been confirmed as involving alcohol or drug impairment. But not all toxicology reports are in.
Snowmobilers can legally drive with a greater blood alcohol content than people who drive cars.
Snowmobiles, off-road vehicles and watercraft drivers are considered to be driving drunk when their blood alcohol content reaches 0.10 percent instead of the 0.8 that typical motor vehicle drivers face.
Sergeants from police posts in Sault Ste. Marie and St. Ignace said although impairment while driving snowmobiles might not be too common, the practice isn’t safe.
“Anytime you’re behind a motorized vehicle with alcohol involved, it’s a dangerous situation,” Michigan State Police Sgt. Lorne Hartwig of the St. Ignace Post said.
Despite the discrepancies between recreational vehicles and standard vehicles, Michigan State Police Sgt. Steven Derusha of the Sault Ste. Marie Post said if these vehicles make their way on to main roadways, the same rules apply as for non-recreational vehicles.
Darcie Moran writes for Michigan State University’s Capital News Service.