By Jenn Watt
Nearly half of snowmobile fatalities in Ontario in the last 10 years occurred on frozen lakes or rivers; 45 per cent involved alcohol or drugs; and 34 per cent were in Central Region which includes the Haliburton Highlands.
Last week the Ontario Provincial Police released their 10-year trend analysis of deaths due to motorized snow vehicle collisions and police are hoping that the results change behaviour patterns and save lives.
“Unfortunately it’s a very grim statistic because you’re talking about 175 deaths [in 10 years] as a result of snowmobiling which is a recreational activity or a sport” said Sgt. Paul Potter co-ordinator of specialized patrol.
Excessive speed and driving too fast for the conditions were two of the top factors in snowmobile deaths police say along with alcohol impairment and losing control of the vehicle.
Potter said that if speed were taken out of the equation “we wouldn’t have nearly the amount of fatalities that we’re currently dealing with.”
Circumstances related to those who died while travelling on frozen lakes or rivers include “intentionally driving onto open water (puddle jumping/water skipping) breaking through the ice and collisions with other snowmobiles and natural landmarks” media materials from the OPP state.
Potter said the OPP has three SAVE teams which stands for snow-vehicle all-terrain vehicle and vessel enforcement in addition to the local detachment’s enforcement program. Police talk to operators about risky behaviour laws and regulations they may not be aware of and reach out to local snowmobile clubs.
“The more we can do to make this sport safer the better it is for everybody” Potter said.
Police are a welcome presence on local trails said John Enright a director of the Haliburton County Snowmobile Association. He said that in his experience people who get into accidents are frequently driving at speeds too fast for the conditions.
“What people have to understand is all our trails have speed limits. They are all posted. The maximum speed on any HCSA trail is 50 km/hr” he said.
HSCA maintains 378 kilometres of trails and 70 kilometres of water crossings which are staked and marked at 100-metre intervals.
“Where people get into trouble is where they go off the trail don’t follow a marked route on a lake [or] travel roads that are not part of the trail system” he said.
Trail conditions and locations can be found at hcsa.ca.
In Haliburton County fire departments are often called if a snowmobile has been in a serious collision. Dysart et al Fire Department fire chief Mike Iles said the number of collisions varies per year. In 2015 for example the department responded to seven snowmobile accidents in 2019 they responded to one.
Most of the snowmobile collisions his department responds to are on trails or on frozen lakes.
In the rare occurrence of water rescues each fire department in the county is a little different in its response which depends on available training equipment and the rules that have been decided upon by municipal councils.
The Dysart et al department has a rescue boat floater suits and ropes available for rescues as well as a snowmobile and a “snowbulance” which carries a patient and paramedic.
Iles said reducing accidents comes down to snowmobilers knowing their surroundings knowing their snowmobile and what it can do and knowing the lakes. “Typically it’s speed and from what I’ve seen … lack of familiarity [with surroundings]” he said.
In Highlands East acting fire chief Chris Baughman said his department responds to about three to four snowmobile collisions a year.
“We do have some that are on the trails. That might entail a breakdown where the person has gotten too cold or an accident” he said. The department has a snowmobile and ATV with tracks and rescue wagons when they need to go out to get someone down a trail.
In his experience he said obeying the speed limit and not drinking and driving would be the two factors most important in reducing the number of accidents.
Potter said he wants to see the number of fatalities in the province decrease.
“Driver behaviour: it needs to be changed and it can be changed” he said. “We’re not identifying issues with the trails. We’re not identifying issues with the equipment or the snowmobiles themselves. It’s the driver’s behaviour. That’s what’s causing this.”