Deaths by snowmachine pile up in Alaska

Posted: Sunday, February 11, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Since 12-year-old Steven Patkotak of Barrow broke through lagoon ice and drowned Sept. 25, Alaska has averaged nearly one snowmachine death per week.

If snowmachining were an occupational hazard, its fatality rate would rank higher than commercial fishing, logging and aviation.

One out of three fatalities are juveniles, passengers or pedestrians.

When it comes to snowmachine safety, Alaska is the wild, wild West. The state has no helmet law, no required operator training, no minimum age requirement, no state speed limits, no formal trail system.

And no inclination to change.

''It's simply not a government function to legislate common sense,'' says state Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, which would consider any legislation to regulate snowmachines.

''If someone is going to be stupid enough to drive a snowmachine into a river after drinking a bunch of alcohol, it's their own business,'' he said.

''How do you pass a law to have people recognize what avalanche danger is and what thin ice is?'' asks Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, Kohring's counterpart in the Senate.

Ward said there is no one-size-fits-all solution in a state where snowmachine use ranges from thrill sport to basic transportation.

Alaskans use their freedom to kill themselves on snowmachines at a per capita rate at least five times higher than any other state.

With just under 627,000 people, the death toll this winter is 19, on a pace to exceed last winter's 24. Wisconsin, with a population of 5.4 million, had 38 fatalities last year. New Hampshire, with 1.2 million people -- and strict snowmobiling laws -- had one death last year and three so far this year, including a man suspected of suffering a heart attack.

The idea that snowmachining is a safe, family sport annoys orthopedic surgeon Dr. Stephen Tower, who has studied snowmachine deaths and injuries in Alaska.

For every snowmachine death, 10 Alaskans are so badly injured they require a hospital stay, he said.

Nearly one-quarter of the injured are children under 18, often with brain or spinal damage that cannot be repaired. The slowest machines can reach freeway speeds without seat belts or roll cages. They're prone to flipping if turned suddenly. They're driven over uneven terrain, on limited-site trails.

To Tower, it's madness for parents to hand the keys of a snowmachine to children.

''I tell them, 'Do you throw them the car keys and tell them to go down to the 7-Eleven?''' Tower says. ''The child would probably be ten times safer.''

Kohring acknowledges the inherent dangers.

''It doesn't take a brain surgeon to realize that a snowmachine is a very dangerous piece of equipment,'' Kohring said.

He just does not believe it's the government's role to protect people from themselves -- or the children of those people.

''I think it's more of an issue of parents giving instructions to kids,'' he said.

Death by snowmachine in Alaska usually falls into three categories.

In rural communities, Alaskans drown or die of exposure. Eight have died this year when they broke through ice or drove into open water.

Eight more died because of excessive speed or losing control. Drivers hit other snowmobiles or moose. They hit light poles or curbs that threw them or their riders into unforgiving, stationary objects.

Three snowmachiners have died in avalanches. In the past, often in the spring, avalanches have killed snowmachiners engaged in highmarking: driving as far up a steep slope as possible before the angle forces the driver to turn around and head down. Avalanche experts say highmarking is inherently risky because snowmachiners approach steep slopes from the bottom with millions of pounds of snow hanging in balance above them that can be triggered by their own noise or vibration.

The Alaska Legislature is considering just one bill addressing snowmachine safety: a measure proposed by Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, to require helmets for anyone under 16 who ride snowmachines or all-terrain vehicles.

He introduced the same bill last session. It didn't get a hearing, and Ellis expects fellow legislators to treat it the same this year.

''I think something would have to hit much closer to home than has yet,'' Ellis said. ''That's exactly what we don't want to have to happen, to have personal tragedy touch anybody.''

Alaskans have a mindset that when they get off the road system, they should be able to do as they please, said Col. Randy Crawford, head of the Alaska State Troopers.

''I'm one of those guys,'' he said. ''I feel that to some degree.''

But that original Alaska philosophy is not melding well with the evolution of the industry, he said.

More people are riding faster, more powerful snowmachines. Trails he used to ride 20 years ago can be traveled at twice the speed, though drivers do not have twice the skill level.

''They're riding over their head and they don't even know it,'' Crawford said.

Simple to operate, snowmachines are simple to crash, Crawford said. The state lacks groomed, regulated trails. Alaskans ride at high rates of speed in open country with flat light that hides gullies or other impediments.

''We ride in the dark more than anybody,'' he said. ''There are a lot of contributing factors.''

Though he's head of the agency that investigates most snowmachine deaths, Crawford does not believe there is a sweeping safety solution that will apply to every Alaska community.

''It doesn't exist for a great many issues in this state,'' said Crawford, who has spent significant time policing western rural villages.

''Trying to restrict a 12-year-old from using a snowmachine to go to school, or to run a trapline after school, would be a travesty,'' he said.

Rural legislators say their villages already lack police protection and safety laws would go unenforced.

Rep. Mary Kapsner, D-Bethel said snowmachines and all-terrain vehicles in rural areas are tools used by the young much like a tractor on a farm. She opposes age restrictions.

Children by necessity have to hunt, pack water, or empty honeybuckets, and chores are made easier with a snowmachine or an all-terrain vehicle, Kapsner said.

''It's not young, pampered children doing what they want to do,'' said Kapsner. ''It's one of the dangers of living in rural Alaska and being close to the land.''

Tower would like to see Alaskans adopt and enforce laws that have saved lives in New Hampshire.

Accidents and fatalities fell when the New Hampshire of Fish and Game Department enforcement division cracked down with drunk driver checkpoints and radar guns to enforce a 45 mph trail speed limit, said Sgt. Bruce Bonenfant.

New Hampshire has other laws in place: a 10 mph speed limit within 150 feet of an ice fishing shanty or parking lots; required training for children to operate snowmachines without adult supervision; 35 mph speed limits for trails within a roadway right of way.

Operators under 18 must wear a helmet. New Hampshire drivers convicted of drunk driving lose their right to operate snowmachines; snowmachine operators arrested for driving drunk lose their drivers' licenses.

Kevin Hite, president of the Alaska State Snowmobile Association, said his group opposes a mandatory helmet law.

''Helmet laws have never been proven to do anything other than put a burden on someone to buy it,'' Hite said.

He said the association would like to see current laws enforced, and would even back a training program for young riders.

Hite said the association may propose safety measures before extreme restrictions come from another source.

Tower does not expect changes soon.

''Given the political climate in Alaska, the sort of sweeping legislation they had in New Hampshire is very unlikely,'' Tower said.

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