January 19, 2013

Subjective speed limits contribute to dangers of snowmobiling

In Maine, and nationwide, high speeds are a contributing factor to major accidents, authorities say

By Deirdre Fleming dfleming@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

OQUOSSOC -- On a mild winter weekend with the classic January thaw in full swing last week, Maine snowmobile riders were not discouraged. They headed north to where the snow is ample and big riding takes place. And they were out in full force.

click image to enlarge

REVVED UP: Scott Newton, left, of North Country Rivers in Bingham, leads a group of snowmobilers down the Interconnected Trail System 87 trail recently. The snowmobile rental business is counting on improving snow conditions for the rest of February and March to make up for a poor start to the season because of low snowfall totals.

Staff photo by David Leaming

click image to enlarge

Ernie Rice, front, and Dennis Harris, both members of the Belgrade Draggin Masters club, groom snowmobile trails through the woods on Dec. 30.

Staff file photo by David Leaming

Southern Maine riders and non-residents travel to western Maine for the wide-open riding, the hospitality in the little towns, and the fact you can rip the engine wide open.

Some states have speed limits for snowmobiling -- New Hampshire's is 45 mph -- but Maine does not. Maine game wardens say the laws in place are adequate to keep unsafe riders in check and riders say Maine's trails are safe. Even so, wardens and conservation officers in other big snowmobile states say speed is a leading cause of snowmobile fatalities.

This year the Maine snowmobile season had a difficult start. One rider's body was recovered in Rangeley Lake by Maine game wardens and three other riders who disappeared there are presumed dead, making it the first winter in 10 years where four snowmobile riders have died before the second week of January.

However, a look around New England and across the country shows a similar picture of a winter sport where reckless driving too often brings death to snowmobile trails.

In Maine, four to 12 people die annually in snowmobile accidents. In other snowmobile states, the number of fatalities is as high as 20 to 25.

"The three common threats are riding at night, speed and alcohol. That causes the majority of fatalities," said Mike Hammer, education coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The need for speed

But in the small towns of western Maine fast riding is a part of the big-woods landscape, Maine is the nation's seventh-biggest snowmobile state, with registered sleds annually numbering between 60,000 and 100,000.

Last Saturday during a weekend when temperatures approached or lingered in the 50s, the tiny village of Oquossoc was crawling with sleds, trailers and helmet-clad riders stopping for lunch. Nearly 20 sleds were parked beside one restaurant.

On an old railroad bed that leads into Oquossoc, snowmobilers ripped it as fast as 80 mph. This is what riders come here for, said Jim Delaney of Boxford, Mass.

Delaney said the good trail conditions and freedom found on Maine's trails are what draw him and his buddies. And Delaney, a snowmobiler for 40 years, doesn't ride anywhere else.

"It's the main reason I come here. I think it's better than riding in New Hampshire, where the limit is 45," said Delaney, 47. "In New Hampshire, everyone is waiting to pass you. And they don't like you to go by them. Here it goes pretty smooth. I've ridden 1,200 miles so far this year, all right in this area."

Delaney, who said he's ridden the trails as fast as 87 mph, said a speed limit in Maine is unnecessary. He and his friends said the vast majority of riders are safe; and the trail conditions and signs make it easy to ride safe in Maine.

"This is safer than driving on the road, where people are texting and looking at their cellphone. I feel people here are better riders. Here, it's more professional," said rider Scott Spence of Topsfield, Mass.

Along IT-84 West heading out of Oquossoc -- a trail that runs all the way to New Brunswick -- riders can fly as fast as 80 mph on their sleds.

But Ryan Harvey comes from Sanford with two friends most weekends and explained that the culture of snowmobiling in Maine, with dozens of snowmobile clubs teaching safe riding habits, makes riders feel safe here.

(Continued on page 2)

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