More snow, more deaths on the trails

New Hampshire has seen more snowmobile fatalities this season than in the past four winters, but the number of accidents and injuries has not risen, and the fatality rate is still below the double-digit tally of earlier decades.

And judging from recent winters, the best way to cut these deadly tallies would require the cooperation of Mother Nature.

“The only real dip you get in crashes and fatalities is from lousy snow winters,” said Major Tim Acerno of New Hampshire Fish and Game’s law ment division. “It’s all related to activity.”

Consider the winters of 2005 and of 2006. Both had erratic or poor snow cover, and as a result some 10,000 fewer people shelled out $48 to $78 to get a New Hampshire registration for their snowmobile.

The resulting reduction in traffic on the state’s 7,000 miles of snow trails translated into the lowest number of accidents, injuries and fatalities this decade.

This winter, on the other hand, has been fine for trail riding, with plenty of snow early and no big warm spells. Registration numbers are back up and it seems likely that accidents will follow suit.

So far, accident numbers remain at relatively low levels, but despite the bare ground around Nashua there is still a good month of snowmobile season to go in the North Country.

All this is not to say there is no way to make snowmobiling safer.

Acerno said that years of public education, heightened law enforcement, and work improving trails have had great impact, since double-digit numbers of fatalities were not uncommon in the 1990s.

“We’ve spent a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of volunteer hours to make our trails safe,” he said.

Safe trails don’t help when people leave them, however. Acerno noted that a large percentage of fatalities occur when people go riding across frozen ponds, fields and roads. All three of the fatalities in 2006-07, for example, occurred “off trail,” as did two of this year’s five fatalities.

Acerno pointed to a big law-enforcement change that has helped: Requiring snowmobile safety classes for people convicted of such snowmobiling crimes as speeding, driving drunk, or “skimming” over open water, before they can register their machines again.

This time-consuming chore has proved far more of a deterrent than just a fine, he said.

“Prior to requiring the class, we would have 600-700 speed summons a year. . . . Now we have about 250 speed summons a year,” he said.

There’s another incentive to take a class: Registration is $48 if you’ve graduated, $78 if you haven’t.

The next law-enforcement step would be to add “points” to driver’s licenses for violations when driving snowmobiles, just as they are added for violations when driving cars. This is not allowed in New Hampshire.

Fish & Game has 38 officers to cover the state, not including administrators and field lieutenants, Acerno said. They can be spread pretty thin in a winter like this, when machines are out from the Monadnock Region to the Rockingham Trail to Nash Stream State Forest.

“It’s hard to justify taking an officer from Keene to Pittsburg for patrol,” he said.

SNOWMOBILE ACCIDENTS IN NEW HAMPSHIRE

Winter
Registrations
Accidents
Injuries
Fatalities
2001-02
54,657
103
87
3
2002-03
67,166
143
117
6
2003-04
60,383
n/a
n/a
n/a
2004-05
63,642
118
86
8***
2005-06
44,527
63
49
2
2006-07
49,774
67
55
3
2007-08
60,689
108
76
4
2008-09*
60,000**
69*
48*
5*

* through early March ** estimated
***includes one double-fatal accident
Source: New Hampshire Fish & Game