Protecting humans in a snowmobile world

Michael Johansen
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Screams that sound like demented mating calls echo across the moonlit snowscape. They can be heard from far away, over hills and frozen lakes. They circle the towns through dark forests, slipping quickly between houses and down streets, wailing and crying as they pass, forcing citizens caught outside to flee their heedless fury.

In other words, as others have already pointed out, winter’s finally here and we have to watch out for the usual squads of careless souped-up snowmobilers.

The revving scream of a motor equipped with an oppositely named Silencer warns that a machine capable of driving more than 100 km/h might appear at any moment, with anyone between the ages of 10 and 104 at the handlebars.

It could appear from any direction, on either side of the street or in the middle, on either snowbank, going either way — either alone or in convoy. Reflective clothing or not, it’s usually up to the pedestrian, or the automobile, or the tree, or the house to get out of the way.

Wary walkers or skiers will hear a snow machine’s approach by its ear-splitting whine and maybe they’ll be able to evade collision, but the yearly tally of strikes proves it’s not always possible.

Woe to the pedestrian who imagines he is protected by his law-given right of way, because many snowmobilers, young and old, don’t recognize it. There are many who flout even common sense driving practises, like going only one way on one side of the street and only the other way on the other side. The belief is that some kind of common law gives snowmobilers right of way over all others.

“Happy Valley-Goose Bay is a snowmobile town,” is how some express it in the upper Lake Melville area.

Minimal control

Always unfortunately, and sometimes tragically, such a belief in the supremacy of motorized ski and track does not protect careless drivers from the real world. It won’t help them or anyone else prevent or survive a crash.

Efforts to bring snowmobile use under even minimal control in Newfoundland and Labrador have always been split into two. As a result, piecemeal regulations get piecemeal enforcement. The makers and groomers of the province’s winter trails need to restrict who can use them for financial reasons, and have created a highly local, non-governmental registration system, but they can’t implement it themselves. As a result, two different government agencies are needed to do the work — likely without getting any more people or resources to help.

Squads of RCMP officers are sometimes being sent out on blitz-patrols down the trails to catch speeders and drinking drivers, but when they’re not available, provincial conservation officers (who would otherwise be out protecting the province’s endangered wildlife and habitat) are now responsible for issuing tickets to snowmobilers using groomed trails without the proper permits.

Completely separately, and now in the aftermath of yet another needless fatality, the provincial government is being urged to raise the minimum snowmobile driving age to stop preteen children from risking their lives on machines they can’t control.

Licence requirements

As yet, there are few people calling for compulsory training as a requirement for a licence.

Instead, as if to fill in the gaps left by the usual enforcement agencies, mothers and fathers are being exhorted to exercise more control over the way their children drive snowmobiles, since it’s clear most wouldn’t be driving underaged unless they had parental permission.

However, that approach won’t work if the parents have also been raised in a laissez-faire snowmobile culture and haven’t themselves been taught traffic regulations and proper driving etiquette.

Ultimately, the best way to combat dangerous and underaged snow­mobiling is for the government to design, teach and enforce a comprehensive system that regulates the operation of snowmobiles (and other all-terrain vehicles) on public trails, roads and streets. It shouldn’t be too difficult. After all, an identical system is already in use for automobiles.

Some drivers do try to flout that one, too, but it still saves lives.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Organizations: RCMP

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Happy Valley, Goose Bay Lake Melville

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