Pat Durkin column: Snowmobiling deaths fall since start of speed limit

Mar. 16, 2013

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Snowmobile fatalities this winter are on track to match or exceed Wisconsinís long-term annual average of 21 as we leave mid-March with few signs of spring, especially in the Northwoods.

The death toll for the 2012-13 snowmobile season was 18 as of March 11, with snow conditions rated fair to excellent in Wisconsinís northern half and another snowstorm on the way. This yearís fatalities are the highest since 21 died in 2010, but well below the record 39 in 1999-2000.

That deadly winter 13 years ago is worth noting because it launched Wisconsinís most lethal seven-year stretch in snowmobiling history. Take a look:

■ 205 snowmobilers died between December 1999 and March 2006, an average of 29.3 per winter.

■ Those 205 deaths were nearly 24 percent of Wisconsinís 865 snowmobile fatalities the past 41 winters.

■ Snowmobiling fatalities hit 30 or more seven times the past 41 winters, and the three deadliest occurred between 1999 and 2006: 39 deaths in 1999-2000, 38 in 2004-05, and 36 in 2005-06.

That unprecedented carnage helped prompt the Legislature to set a nighttime speed limit of 55 mph in 2006. Since, Wisconsin hasnít had 30 snowmobiling deaths in one winter. The deadliest recent winter was 2006-07, with 26 fatalities.

With this winter not finished, 140 snowmobilers have died the past seven years (20 annually), or 32 percent fewer than the previous seven winters.

Granted, 20 deaths per winter since 2005-06 is only one below Wisconsinís long-term annual average of 21.1 since 1972-73. And yes, the long-term gap widens only slightly (21.3 deaths) when reviewing only the 34 seasons before the nighttime speed limit.

Still, itís clear the speed limit slowed the new centuryís deadly spree. Thatís good news, no doubt, but snowmobiling remains Wisconsinís most lethal outdoor recreation. The next deadliest is boating, which suffered 128 fatalities the past seven seasons, or 12 fewer than snowmobiling those years.

Perhaps itís the nature of boating and snowmobiling, but males are far more likely to die in accidents than females, and at nearly identical rates. Since the Department of Natural Resources starting tracking the gender of boating victims in 2007, males accounted for 107, or 90 percent, of 118 boating deaths the past six seasons. And of 140 snowmobile deaths the past seven winters, males accounted for 123, or 88 percent.

Alcohol and speed ó and often both ó continue to be the main contributing factors in fatal snowmobile accidents. During the 2011-12 season, 70 percent of fatalities involved excessive speeds, and 60 percent involved alcohol. And thatís the lowest percentage the past four seasons. Alcohol was involved in 70 percent of snowmobiling deaths in 2008-09, 67 percent in 2009-2010 and 76 percent in 2010-11.

Most victims are old enough ó and experienced enough ó to know better. The average age of victims in 2011-12 was 38, and 40 percent were older than 40. Further, 60 percent had operated snowmobiles more than 100 hours.

Here are more snowmobiling statistics from 2011-12:

■ Historically, 70 percent of fatalities occur after dark. In 2011-12, fatalities were split evenly between day and night, but 80 percent occurred from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m.

■ Friday, Saturday and Sunday each accounted for 30 percent of 2011-12 deaths. Monday had the remaining 10 percent.

■ 30 percent of fatalities occurred on trails, 30 percent on lakes and streams, 20 percent on private land and 10 percent on public roads not part of a snowmobile route.

■ 60 percent of fatalities resulted from collisions with trees, rocks, buildings or other fixed obstacles; while collisions with an ATV or motor vehicle caused 10 percent each.

■ 20 percent of fatalities occurred when snowmobilers drove into open water.

■ 90 percent of victims wore a helmet.

■ 90 percent of snowmobile drivers killed in accidents had not taken the stateís snowmobile safety certification course. In 1999, Wisconsin made it mandatory that snowmobile drivers be at least 12 years old, and that every operator born after Jan. 1, 1985, pass a snowmobile education course.

As more snowmobilers become subject to this law, letís hope they take their classroom lessons to heart.

Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for Press-Gazette Media. Email him at

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