1 table, 1 figure omitted
During the 2002-2003 winter season in northern New England, 28 deaths
in three states were associated with the use of snowmobiles, more than reported
during any of the previous 12 winter seasons. The New Hampshire Department
of Health and Human Services conducted a study to characterize these fatal
injuries. This report describes the results of that study, which indicated
that the leading contributors to snowmobile fatalities were excessive speed,
inattentive or careless operation, and inexperience. Efforts to reduce snowmobile
fatalities should focus on improving safety measures, including establishing
speed limits, strengthening enforcement of snowmobile operating rules, and
promoting safety education.
A case was defined as a fatality involving a person either riding on
or struck by a snowmobile in Maine, New Hampshire, or Vermont during December
16, 2002–April 30, 2003. Cases were identified by reviewing reports
from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, New Hampshire
Fish and Game Department, and Vermont Department of Public Safety. The following
three case descriptions summarize fatality reports from the three state agencies,
based on investigations by enforcement officers.
Maine. In early January 2003, driver A, a male
aged 17 years, was operating a snowmobile with a 600 cubic centimeter (cc)
engine when he collided with another snowmobile at approximately 4:30 p.m.,
4 minutes after sunset. According to the investigative report, driver A was
speeding when he crested a small rise on a state trail at the same time as
driver B, who was traveling in the opposite direction. Driver A, who was wearing
a helmet, was struck in the head by the oncoming snowmobile; he died from
head injuries. Driver B was not injured.
Vermont. In late January 2003, a man aged 45
years was operating a snowmobile with a 600 cc engine at 4:25 p.m., 20 minutes
before sunset, when he attempted to make a right turn while traveling at high
speed. The snowmobile overturned, throwing the driver onto the trail. The
driver was wearing a helmet; his death was caused by blunt trauma to the chest
New Hampshire. In late February 2003, a man
aged 30 years was operating a snowmobile with a 700 cc engine on a frozen
lake when he fell off his snowmobile at 5:00 p.m., approximately 30 minutes
before sunset. Reportedly, the driver was speeding toward an open channel
in an attempt to ride the snowmobile over open water, (i.e., "skimming.")
The driver's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was 0.06 mg/dL (New Hampshire's
BAC limit for snowmobile operators is <0.08 mg/dL). The driver was not
wearing a helmet. He struck his head on ice and fell into the water; death
was caused by a basal skull fracture.
The 28 deaths associated with snowmobile use during the winter of 2002-2003
were the most reported annually by the three states during the previous 12
winter seasons (range: 6-24 deaths; median: 14 deaths). Sixteen (57%) of the
2002-2003 fatalities occurred in Maine, eight (29%) in New Hampshire, and
four (14%) in Vermont. The fatality rate was 1.7 deaths per 10,000 registered
snowmobiles in Maine, 1.2 per 10,000 registered snowmobiles in New Hampshire,
and 1.0 per 10,000 snowmobiles with trail maintenance passes sold in Vermont.
Of the 28 fatalities, 26 (93%) were drivers, one (4%) was a passenger,
and one (4%) was a pedestrian. Twenty-six (93%) of the fatalities involved
males. The median age was 39 years (range: 15-58 years). Of the 20 fatalities
for which BAC was tested, five (25%) involved BACs of ≥0.08 mg/dL. A total
of 22 (81%) of the 27 riders fatally injured were wearing a helmet. None of
the drivers in New Hampshire or Vermont had taken an operator safety course.
Of the 21 snowmobiles with known engine size, 17 (81%) had >500 cc engines.
Four (14%) of the 28 fatalities occurred in December, 12 (43%) in January,
seven (25%) in February, four (14%) in March, and one (4%) in April; 17 (61%)
of the fatalities occurred on Saturday or Sunday. Of the 26 fatal accidents
with known time of occurrence, 14 (54%) occurred after sunset. Of the 25 fatalities
with known weather condition, 18 (72%) occurred when the weather was clear,
five (25%) when it was cloudy, and two (8%) when it was snowing.
According to investigative reports of enforcement officers, 18 (64%)
of the fatalities involved excessive speed (i.e., driving too fast for conditions);
six (21%), inattentive or careless operation (e.g., driving on the wrong side
of trails, attempting to jump embankments, and negotiating curves improperly);
six (21%), inexperience; two (7%), mechanical problems; and one (4%), a heart
attack; six (21%) fatalities involved more than one risk factor. Thirteen
(46%) fatalities were caused by hitting fixed objects (e.g., trees, rocks,
and chains across trails), four (14%) by head-on collisions with other snowmobiles,
three (11%) by going through ice, three (11%) by going over an embankment,
and five (14%) by other causes. Of the 13 fatalities caused by hitting fixed
objects, nine (69%) occurred after sunset. Blunt trauma caused 23 (i.e., 14
head and neck, six chest and abdomen, and three other) (82%) of the deaths,
two (7%) were caused by drowning, one (4%) by heart attack, and two (7%) were
T Acerno, New Hampshire Fish and Game Dept, Concord; A Pelletier, MD,
New Hampshire Dept of Health and Human Svcs. J Johnson, Vermont Dept of Public
Safety, Waterbury, Vermont. M Sawyer, Maine Dept of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife,
Augusta, Maine. L Ramsey, PhD, EIS Officer, CDC.
Snowmobile-related fatalities in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont during
2002-2003 were higher than during preceding years. The results of this study
indicate that the primary causes of these fatalities were excessive speed,
inattentive or careless operation, and inexperience. Excessive speed has been
reported as a cause of snowmobile fatalities in Maine and New Hampshire.1,2 Engine sizes range from 250 cc to 1,000 cc, with snowmobiles traveling
at speeds up to 110 mph. In Maine, no speed limits are posted on state trails;
drivers must operate their machines at a "reasonable and prudent speed for
the conditions." In New Hampshire, the speed limit on trails is 45 mph unless
otherwise posted. In Vermont, the speed limit is 35 mph on public land; drivers
must operate at "reasonable and prudent" speeds on private land, which comprises
approximately 80% of the state's trail system.
Measures for improving safety on snowmobile trails have been recommended
(see sidebar). All three states conduct free safety-training courses for snowmobile
operators. Maine does not require drivers to take a safety-training course.
New Hampshire requires persons aged <18 years without a valid driver's
license to take a safety-training course. Vermont requires snowmobile operators
born after July 1, 1983, to take a safety-training course.
A total of 25% of those drivers tested had BACs of ≥0.08 mg/dL, less
than percentages reported previously in Maine (41%; BAC ≥0.08 mg/dL) and
New Hampshire (67%; alcohol used).1,2 The reduction might be attributed
to increased awareness and enforcement. In 1997, statewide strategic planning
to improve snowmobile safety was initiated in Maine, and a Snowmobile Safety
Awareness Committee was created in New Hampshire. The focus of these efforts
is to increase safe riding, including educating snowmobile operators on the
dangers of drinking and driving.
The annual variation in snowmobile fatalities in the three states might
be related to at least three factors. First, snowmobile use is dependent on
weather conditions; winters with greater snowfalls and lower temperatures
allow persons more opportunity to use snowmobiles. The cumulative snowfall
for the 2002-2003 season in Concord, New Hampshire, was 89 inches, compared
with an average of 45 inches during the previous 12 winter seasons. Second,
the number of registered snowmobiles has increased over time, leading to an
increase in the number of snowmobile operators, including inexperienced persons.
Finally, the number of fatalities in the three states is small and might be
The findings in this report are subject to at least two limitations.
First, data for some variables (e.g., reported speed and BAC) were not available
for all fatalities. Second, risk factors could not be assessed from the data
Strengthening enforcement of existing laws and increasing safety measures
might reduce fatalities associated with snowmobiles. State and local officials
should consider enacting additional measures to promote safety, especially
those aimed at reducing speed on trails and educating operators on more cautious
and attentive use of snowmobiles.
This report is based on contributions by K Boynton, Maine Dept of Inland
Fisheries and Wildlife. R Shults, PhD, Div of Unintentional Injury Prevention,
National Center for Injury Prevention and Control; J Magri, MD, Div of Applied
Public Health Training, Epidemiology Program Office, CDC.
References: 2 available
Snowmobile Fatalities—Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, 2002-2003. JAMA. 2004;291(11):1314-000. doi:10.1001/jama.291.11.1314