In snowmachine safety, Alaska is still the 'wild, wild West'

No room for regulation

Posted: Sunday, March 18, 2001

ANCHORAGE -- Since 12-year-old Steven Patkotak broke through lagoon ice and drowned Sept. 25, Alaska has averaged nearly one snowmobile death per week -- a per capita rate at least five times higher than any other state.

When it comes to snowmobile 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 desire to change.

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

State Sen. Jerry Ward, vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said there is no one-size-fits-all solution in a state where snowmobile use ranges from thrill sport to basic transportation.

''How do you pass a law to have people recognize what avalanche danger is and what thin ice is?'' Ward asks.

With a population just under 627,000 people, the death toll this winter is 23, on pace to exceed last winter's 24. Wisconsin, with a population of 5.4 million, had 38 fatalities last winter. New Hampshire, with 1.2 million people and strict snowmobiling laws, had one death last winter and four through February, including a man suspected of suffering a heart attack.

One out of three fatalities in Alaska is a juvenile, passenger or pedestrian.

The idea that snowmobiling is a safe, family sport annoys orthopedic surgeon Dr. Stephen Tower, who has studied snowmobile deaths and injuries in Alaska. For every snowmobile 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 of 70 mph without seat belts or roll cages. They are prone to flipping if turned suddenly. They are driven over uneven terrain, on limited-sight trails.

To Tower, it is simply madness for parents to hand over the keys to a snowmobile 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.''

If snowmobiling were an occupation, its fatality rate would rank higher than commercial fishing, logging and aviation.

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.

Still, he does not believe it is 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 snowmobile in Alaska falls into three categories.

In rural communities, Alaskans drown or die of exposure. Nine people died this winter when they broke through ice, drove into open water or lost their way and died from the cold.

Eleven 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 snowmobilers died in avalanches. In the past, often in the spring, avalanches killed snowmobilers 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 snowmobilers approach steep slopes from the bottom with millions of pounds of snow hanging in balance above them. An avalanche can be triggered by their own noise or vibration.

''I guess you would call it a guy thing -- who can hit the top and be king of the hill,'' said Jim Wood, a snowmobiler.

Wood, 36, married with two daughters, carries an avalanche beacon, shovels, probes, a cell phone and spare clothing into the back country. He finds the allure of speed and power, and the chance to roam the Alaskan countryside irresistible.

His 120-horsepower sled will reach 110 mph. He has fallen off his machine on ice at speeds so fast the friction burned a hole through his snowsuit. He was out one day when a shelf of snow beneath him broke away and carried him a quarter mile down the mountainside.

''That's part of it that makes it exciting,'' said his friend and snowmobiling companion Kevin Reed, also 36.

''If you don't enjoy it, stay on the couch and hope your remote control doesn't run out of batteries,'' he said.

The Alaska Legislature is considering just one bill addressing snowmobile safety: a measure proposed by Democratic Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis to require helmets for anyone under 16 who rides snowmobiles or all-terrain vehicles.

Ellis introduced the same bill last session. It got no hearing, and Ellis expects fellow legislators to ignore it again 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 public roadways, 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 snowmobiles. 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, snowmobiles are also simple to crash, Crawford said. The state lacks groomed, regulated trails. Alaskans ride at high rates of speed in open country with flat lights that can skew depth perception and hide 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 snowmobile deaths, Crawford, surprisingly, 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 where, for instance, trappers would use snowmobiles or dog sled to check a series of traps covering miles in a linear or circuitous trapline.

''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.

James Patkotak, father of the season's first victim, said Steven was a passenger on a snowmobile driven by a 13-year-old friend when Steven died.

''My son went through very young ice,'' he said. ''It was very dangerous to ride on that ice in September.''

People in the Patkotak family hometown of Barrow, the nation's farthest north community, use snowmobiles like other Americans use cars.

''They use them to go to the local store, shopping,'' Patkotak said. ''If they don't have access to a four-wheel drive vehicle, they've got to use them. They use them for subsistence hunting, and that sort of stuff.''

He said there is not enough enforcement of municipal laws governing snowmobiles in Barrow. He also said young children should not be operating snowmobiles by themselves.

''No kid under 13 years old should be driving a snowmachine without proper supervision,'' he said.

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

Accidents and fatalities fell when the New Hampshire 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 under 16 to operate snowmobiles 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 drunken driving lose their right to operate snowmobiles; snowmobile operators arrested for driving drunk lose their driver's licenses.

Still, 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,'' he said.

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