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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin Studies Show Snowmobiling Safety Improving

As counties across Wisconsin rushed to open their snowmobile trails before Christmas weekend, they warned snowmobilers to watch out for trail-grooming crews and “actively falling” trees.

Yes, that’s a curious description. After all, can trees fall passively in the forest? OK. Let’s not be snarky. You know what they meant. Trees across Wisconsin were strained by wet, heavy snow in their branches the previous week, causing many to collapse under the burden.

All that downed wood made trails and backwoods roads impassable for days until trail-grooming crews cleared them. Meanwhile, county sheriffs, tourism offices and the Department of Natural Resources updated their annual advisories, telling snowmobilers to stay sober and in control when enjoying the abundant snow.

As Lt. Jake Holsclaw, the DNR’s off-highway vehicle administrator said in a press release: “Excessive speed, alcohol use and inexperience contribute to snowmobile crashes. Ride responsibly and look out for yourself and others. … Impairment of any kind, either by drugs or alcohol, can have tragic consequences.”

As of Dec. 22, the DNR listed 14 snowmobiling fatalities for 2022, one more than in 2021 but five fewer than the 19 deaths in both 2018 and 2020.

All fatalities are tragic, of course, but recent annual tolls are half as many as two decades before when snowmobiling deaths hit a record 39 in winter 2000-2001 and 38 in winter 2005-06. That carnage forced the Legislature in 2006 to impose a 55-mph nighttime speed limit, which helped limit fatalities to 25 or lower the past 16 years.

And contrary to assumptions, inexperience and carelessness aren’t fatally unique to young people. Of the 81 snowmobilers killed in Wisconsin from 2018 to the present, 35 (43%) were 50 or older. In fact, of 2022’s 14 snowmobiling fatalities, 11 (79%) were 50 or older. In addition, 69 of the state’s snowmobiling fatalities the past five years were males, with only three of the 12 dead females 50 or older.

Even though Wisconsin’s snowmobiling toll has stayed relatively flat since 2011, varying from nine to 22 fatalities annually, the number of injuries and crashes have increased. DNR accident data ( tallied 90 crashes and 71 injuries in 2011, but 115 crashes and 101 injuries in 2021, increases of 28% and 42%, respectively.

Meanwhile, alcohol use was more common in fatal snowmobiling crashes than for ATV and UTV (side-by-side) users. Of Wisconsin’s 13 snowmobiling fatalities in 2021, 10 (77%) involved alcohol, ranking it the No. 1 factor in fatal crashes ahead of excessive speed and sharp turns. Alcohol was also involved in 14 of 33 ATV fatalities (42%) and seven of 12 UTV fatalities (58%).

Even so, efforts to reduce drinking and improve snowmobiling safety show some progress. DNR data reveal a downward trend in OWI citations for snowmobilers the past decade, dropping 60% from 98 arrests in 2011 to 39 in 2021. Still, OWI citations ranked No. 7 on snowmobiling’s Top 10 violations list.

In contrast, OWI citations among ATV/UTV operators rose nearly four-fold from 35 arrests in 2011 to 134 in 2021, making it No. 5 on that category’s Top 10 violations list.

Snowmobilers were also more likely to wear helmets than those riding ATVs and UTVs. Citations for not wearing a helmet didn’t make the DNR’s Top 10 list for snowmobiling citations in 2021. That might help explain lower death rates in snowmobiling crashes. Of the state’s 115 reported snowmobile crashes in 2021, 13 (11%) caused fatalities. All 13 victims, however, were wearing helmets.

But of the state’s 292 ATV/UTV crashes in 2021, 47 (16%) caused fatalities, and only four of the victims (8.5%) were wearing a helmet. In fact, not one of the 13 people killed in UTV accidents in 2021 was wearing a helmet. The DNR cited 384 people for driving or riding in an ATV/UTV without a helmet in 2021, the second most common violation in those groups. The only violation ranking worse was illegally operating an ATV/UTV on or near a highway, which generated 407 citations.

Snowmobilers were also less likely than ATV/UTV drivers to get cited for operating carelessly. In 2021, ATV/UTV drivers received 109 citations for careless driving, which is No. 6 on the ATV/UTV Top 10 list. Snowmobilers received only 23 such citations, 10th on the sport’s Top 10 citations list. That continues a decade-long decline in “careless operation” citations for snowmobilers, dropping from 79 in 2011 and 82 in 2014, to 26 and 45 the past two years.

In addition, snowmobilers are less likely than ATV/UTV drivers to get cited for operating their vehicles without a safety certificate. Since 1988, Wisconsin has required ATV/UTV drivers to be at least 12 years old, and earn and carry the safety certificate. Likewise, since 1985, snowmobile drivers must be at least 12, and earn and carry a safety certificate. Operators born before those years are exempt from mandatory training.

Still, many operators don’t comply. In 2021, the DNR cited 210 ATV/UTV drivers and 129 snowmobilers for operating without a valid safety certificate, the third most common violation in both activities that year.

That lack of safety awareness shows up in crash reports. Of the 134 operators involved in snowmobile crashes in 2021, 45 were required to hold a safety certificate. Only 28 (62%), however, were certified. And of the 308 operators involved in ATV/UTV crashes in 2021, 126 were required to hold a safety certificate. Of those, 46 (36.5%) were certified.

The DNR reported 13,172 people earned snowmobile safety certificates in 2021, with 36% of them (4,744) certifying in person. In contrast, of the 14,486 people earning ATV safety certificates in 2021, only 12% were certified in person. Most people — 64% of snowmobilers and 88% of ATV drivers — earn their safety certificates online.

Wisconsin offers nearly twice as many in-person snowmobile safety classes than ATV classes. From 2017 through 2021, the state held 1,052 snowmobile safety classes and 576 ATV classes, including 247 classes for snowmobilers and 122 for ATV drivers in 2021.

Even though OWI citations among Wisconsin snowmobilers declined 60% from 2011 to 2021, alcohol was involved in 10 (77%) of 13 snowmobiling fatalities in 2021, making it the No. 1 factor in fatal crashes.Patrick Durkin photo

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