Kids’ safety is all that matters


Posted: Friday, February 02, 2007

We’ve all seen it — machines buzzing

across the horizon, kicking up snow. Snowmachiners swear there’s nothing like cruising the high country, climbing a hill and catching the view from a mountaintop.

But that’s not the problem. It’s the need for speed, and when that overcomes those in the driver’s seat, the risks of man and machine versus the elements begin to rise.

Now add children to the mix.

On Jan. 13, 7-year-old Joshua Smith was in a group with his father and sped ahead across Lake Louise when he hit a snow berm. The crash ended Joshua’s life.

A 7-year-old child was driving an adult-sized machine with lots of power. Why?

There are no state laws dictating the rules about children and snowmachines. We depend on common sense to tell us what’s right and wrong. At times, it appears common sense isn’t enough, though.

It’s difficult to understand how allowing a child to sit in the seat of a vehicle that screams from 0 to 60 is common sense.

So whose decision should it be? Do we continue to allow parents to make the call or do we ask the state to step in and make it for us?

Legislators exempted four-wheelers and snowmachines from a law requiring drivers be at least 16 on any motorized vehicle five years ago. We can see their reasoning. In a state where there’s plenty of land and not many options for crossing it, it would be hard to put the brakes on limiting means of travel.

As well, in a time where the word “privacy” is slowly dwindling to a thing of the past, it’s easy to get defensive about giving government another opportunity to look over our shoulders.

There is a role for government to play, but the responsibility begins with parents.

Joshua knew how to ride a snowmachine, and his parents felt he could handle it. They just didn’t expect the results.

In Alaska, snowmachine injuries hospitalize between 40 and 50 youth (ages 0-19) a year, and snowmachines and ATVs are the third leading cause of injury hospitalization for the 10-19 age group, according to the state.

“A parent wouldn’t think about turning a kid loose in a car, yet they think nothing of turning ’em loose on a snowmachine that will go 80 mph, 90 mph,” Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Mark Agnew said. “These machines are designed for adults at 150 pounds plus. You put a 70-pound kid, a 60-pound kid on there, and they’re just rockets.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Web site says children under 16 shouldn’t drive snowmachines and kids under 6 shouldn’t even get on as passengers.

Again, this is not exactly realistic for Alaska, but there are things parents can do to help eliminate accidents with their children.

· Take your child to a safety training program. Kenai Peninsula SAFE KIDS has information on snowmachine safety and hosts a day to work with kids to help them become better drivers. The central peninsula coordinator may be reached by e-mail at or call 714-4539.

If no program is available, get as much information as you can and share it with your child. The Internet is an incredible resource for such topics.

Once your child is in the driver’s seat and ready to hit the trail, make sure they know these guidelines (provided by the Environmental Education for Kids Web site):

· Slow down. Speed is a contributing factor in nearly all fatal snowmachine accidents. Drive at a speed that will give you enough time to react should you need to change speed or direction quickly. Drive at moderate speeds, and drive defensively, especially after sunset.

· Be sure whoever you’re with has a first-aid kit with a flashlight, knife, compass, map and waterproof matches.

· Avoid traveling across lakes, streams and rivers if you aren’t sure of the ice thickness or water currents. Rapidly changing weather and moving water affect the thickness and strength of ice.

· Dress for the weather. Always wear a helmet with goggles or a face shield to prevent injuries from twigs and flying debris. Wear layers of water-repellent clothing and make sure you have no loose ends that might catch in the machine or tangle in equipment.

· Stay on marked trails or, where allowed, on the right shoulder of the road. Be alert for fences, tree stumps, stretched wire and gates that may be concealed by snow.

· Never travel alone. The most dangerous situations occur when a person is injured and alone. If you must travel alone, tell someone your destination, planned route and when you will return.

These guidelines don’t just apply to children, they’re a good reminder for adults, too, whether it’s a trip to the hills or a neighborhood romp. Safety is a matter for everyone.

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