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I watched as the approaching snowmobiler on a bright red and yellow sled stopped on the snowy trail and stuck his left arm out in front of him. He was wearing a black snowmobile suit with a racing flag checkerboard design on the sleeve. He made a motion as if he were throwing a snowball over his left shoulder then repeated it several times. He wasn't commenting on my driving skills, but was signaling me that he was traveling in a group and more sleds were following behind. Nothing unusual about that, except that it was August, about 85 degrees, and the only cold chill was in the glass of iced tea beading up beside my computer. I was taking a CD-ROM course on snowmobile safety and learning hand signals for the trail from the comfort of my home.
"As we often say, recreational safety is no accident," said DNR Snowmobile Safety Coordinator Karl Brooks, "and the easier we make it to teach newcomers or remind seasoned sledders about safe travel tips, the better off we are on the trails come winter."
Brooks developed the CD-ROM training course with advice from safety instructors, students and the help of DNR computer trainers with video skills. The course makes it easier for people who are comfortable using computers to get safety training at times and places at their convenience rather than taking classroom instruction.
"Our volunteer snowmobile safety instructors continue to do a good job and have taught an impressive 1,200 classes since 1971," Brooks said. "They reach an average of about 8,000 students a year, but the challenge is that the number of people who want or need to be trained increases every year, and we simply can't reach them all in classes. The demand for certified instruction is great and we need more tools to train people before they decide to go snowmobiling."
Odd weather, faster snowmobiles, and risky behavior on the trails have combined to make the last several winters more dangerous for snowmobiling. Last year 26 snowmobilers in Wisconsin died in snowmobile accidents, up from the 10-year average of 22 deaths annually. Mild winters with little snow have been an issue the last two winters, as more of the state's 209,000 registered snowmobiles hit the trails on fewer days. Accidents are more likely to happen at night, but there is no question that excesive speed combined with alcohol consumption and poor ice conditions contributed to accidents and fatalities. Snowmobile instruction, whether on CD-ROM or in the classroom, emphasizes the need to control speed, abstain from all alcohol use and show extra caution when riding at night.
Dr. Thomas Gabert, an emergency room physician at the Marshfield Clinic, sees too many of those snowmobile tragedies unfold.
"We don't have data to suggest that snowmobile injuries change as speed increases, but there is plenty of data in other activities (boats and cars) that speed makes things worse. The reaction time from threat to action (as in 'I see the tree, I have released the throttle') is 1-1.5 seconds. At 60 miles per hour, that is 88 feet per second. Trails are 12 feet wide, so you can be 88 feet or more into the woods before you can get your hand off the throttle. We also know that the force of injury doubles with each 10 mph increase in speed."
Snowmobile safety instruction aims to help experienced riders and especially new riders learn to reduce those risks.
State safety laws require that anyone born on or after January 1, 1985 take snowmobile training and pass a safety course before they can legally ride a snow machine. "The group that must be certified is now 18 years old or younger," Brooks said. "Most of these kids are familiar and comfortable with computers and interactive CDs. Many of them would just as soon take safety courses on their own time and at their own pace as attend a series of afternoon, evening or weekend classes, and they are not alone. Adults also want to take the training, a lot of them are computer literate and they are willing to use the computer as a training tool."
CD training offers other advantages as well. Children as young as 12 can be certified to ride snowmobiles in Wisconsin, and it is challenging to design courses that are geared and paced to a mixed audience of 12-year-old and adult students. Though adults want the training, some are reluctant to attend classes where the students are primarily teenagers and vice versa. Students can also repeat the CD lessons as many times as they would like before taking quizzes at the end of each section. They can also tailor the course to their schedules fitting in a half-hour between homework and dinner or working on it an hour before the Packer game starts. Moreover, children read at their own speed. Several people we spoke with said they liked the fact that students could pick their own pace in learning and reviewing the material instead of being tied to another class schedule and class deadlines.
"We were grateful for the CD," wrote Marion Moeller of Fox Lake. Her son, Kevin, took the CD course last December when a family vacation kept them out of town when local snowmobile clubs offered certification courses. Both she and her husband are avid snowmobilers and are active in the local club. "If we could not have done the CD course, Kevin would not have been able to snowmobile last year," Moeller said.
"In our case, we had missed the date for the safety course sign-up," said Deb Hack, who lives south of Hartford. "We heard about the CD and said, "Hey, let's try this and see." The CD course worked out better for us than classes. This was the perfect thing for our son, Nathan. That age group (12) is into technology and wants to do things on the computer. He sat down and did the whole CD by himself in about a week's time. I had gone through the material, so I knew what he'd be getting into. I told him to keep notes for the test and he went through everything. My husband asked him several questions when they were actually on the trail about identifying markers and using signals as they were stopping and going, and Nathan had learned all the answers."
"We had heard rumblings that kids needed to attend the class to discuss issues like alcohol use on snowmobiles, but we didn't find that to be the case," Hack said. "Kids 12-16 aren't into that anyway, and we were impressed with how the alcohol and drug use information was presented. This CD course is really a cool thing."
"It was convenient for me," said Alex Dailey (17) of Superior. "I fit it into my schedule over a three-week period when I could do it. I didn't have to worry about missing a class or making up a lesson if I was busy. You had to study the material, but you could do it on your own time."
It takes time to build a track record
CD-ROM instruction is no panacea, and it has its critics. Many of those who teach recreational safety classes would prefer to see students in the classroom where they can hear each others' questions, take part in discussions, get answers to their questions and learn from each other. Some of the instructors also provide on-sled practice as part of their safety classes, and those are popular sessions. The Association of Snowmobile Clubs is on record in Wisconsin supporting instructor-led classes rather than online certification for children under 16. "We feel that children between ages 12-15 especially need that interaction in the classroom," Donna White, president of the state Association of Snowmobile Clubs. "The CD is a good tool and a good supplement to classes, but our volunteer safety instructors, many of whom are teachers, believe that younger learners need that classroom interaction and that personal touch if they have any questions. That classroom experience is especially important for children who do not come from a snowmobiling family. Their families might not have the background to understand and answer their questions if the family doesn't have that snowmobiling experience."
It's a touchy issue, said DNR's Brooks. The volunteer snowmobile safety instructors would have to teach classes of 50-80 students to reach the number of new snowmobilers who want and need to be certified. "CD instruction helps to take the pressure off having such large classes, and it is just more convenient for some students both young and older."
I asked Brooks if new snowmobilers taking their safety courses on CD miss hands-on trail instruction from classes. It turns out that most of the classes do not include on-trail instruction.
"Like all the other recreational safety classes, we don't require hands-on road tests or physical skill tests as a component of whether students pass or fail the class to qualify for a safety certificate," Brooks said. "Moreover, given that many snowmobile safety courses are taught before there is snow on the ground, practical lessons are more difficult.
"We'd never advise that the student who has a certificate is suddenly an experienced rider with good skills and judgment," Brooks said, "any more than a student driver who has a learner's permit is ready to handle a car on the highway on his own. The certificate is just a starting point for learning physical skills, trail judgment and getting behind-the-wheel experience with guidance."
Brooks noted that most students get that practical experience from their families and some snowmobile clubs offer group rides to have a good time while getting snowmobilers used to the trails.
Both the Moeller and Hack families described how they are readying their children for the trails now that they have earned safety certificates.
"We are big snowmobilers and the kids have been riding sleds around our yard with us since they were about five years old," Moeller said. "Since both Kevin and his younger brother have been riding sleds with us for years on our property, we felt Kevin was ready to go on the trails on his own snowmobile. Kevin only got out on the lake twice with my husband because we had such little snow last year. Still, before the rides, they went through all the safety issues of what he had to do and what he had to watch for – other people, staying set distances from shore and fishing shacks. He only went out for two hours and only went out twice. We will handle road trips on the trails the same way. We will take simple one-hour trips maybe 25 miles round-trip and we'll make stops in between," Moeller said.
"We would never let Nathan go by himself," Hack said. "We want to be there to make sure that he has learned what he was supposed to learn."
On track online
Students can send for the CD course through DNR wardens, service centers, by contacting the snowmobile safety program at (608) 264-8544 or e-mailing the snowmobile safety program. The CD including mailing is offered free of charge and students who pass the course pay $10 to cover the costs of certification when they mail back their form.
The course weaves you through the basics of snowmobile safety, teaches a bit about unique snowmobile laws and rules of the road, and provides segments on knowing your snow machine, riding tips, anticipating emergencies and handling some of the deadly problems modern-day sledders face.
Lessons start with practical advice for suiting up to stay warm and safe on brisk winter rides. You will learn about helmets, goggles, masks, snowmobile suits, gloves and footwear. It's interesting to learn how something as innocuous as a loose scarf can become a serious hazard to snowmobilers going down a wooded trail. Students are put through the paces learning hand signals to communicate with others on the trail and interpreting trail signs that describe what is ahead.
Next, students learn about registering their snow machines and all the laws that prescribe what to do when snowmobile trails parallel roads, cross roads, and when it is legal for snowmobilers to use portions of town roads to gain access to a trail. This is followed by a sobering discussion of acting responsibly, avoiding alcohol use, cooperating with law enforcement officers and respecting both property rights and no trespass signs. The CD course explains restrictions on ages for snowmobilers, limits on exhaust from a snowmobile, moderating your speed, respecting property and obeying community ordinances.
All the lessons offer practical advice for both novice and seasoned riders. The next section helps you learn about the mechanics of a snowmobile – what's under the hood, the dashboard, lights and mirrors, steering mechanisms, how a snowmobile track works, what poses a hazard on the trail, and a bit about the belt and clutch assembly.
Even though newer snowmobiles are a marvel at providing a cushy ride with good shock absorbers, the trails can get rough and traveling at faster speeds on a machine with plenty of horsepower can bounce even seasoned riders out of the saddle. The course describes different safe riding positions, talks about safe group riding and the challenges of night rides. Eskimo culture may have more than 20 terms for "snow," but snowmobilers have to be alert and learn how ice, dirt, light powdery snow and heavy wet snow affect their ability to ride, steer and stop safely.
Another section will help you plan for the "what if" emergencies. A snowmobile trail isn't like a highway lined with businesses and phones, and winter rides don't always take place in balmy weather. You have to prepare for "what if" I get stuck, stranded or hurt. You have to learn how to keep warm and hydrated. Fortunately some modern devices will work fine on the wooded trails, and the course suggests why there ought to be places for a cell phone, GPS unit, first aid kit, flares, compass, shovel and hand warmers on your machine. There is also a fine list of Do's and don'ts for assisting someone who is injured while riding.
Finally, there are some really gripping stories of errors in judgment that proved to have deadly consequences for some unfortunate snowmobilers. The CD contains six stories with photos showing what can happen to snowmobilers who drink then drive, travel too fast, misjudge distances, traverse ice, collide with other vehicles or engage in careless behavior.
"Those narrated stories of what can happen were well done," recalled Deb Hack. "I'm from upper Minnesota where a lot of people snowmobile, and we know some people who have had some of these things happen, so I think that's important for kids to hear. It wasn't too graphic or sensational, but it hit home, especially the point about excessive speed on snowmobiles. You've got to be able to control it."
"The whole course was helpful, but I'd have to say the parts where the videos describe accidents in photos and stories were things that Kevin later repeated to his dad," said Marion Moeller. "Those stories clicked in his head, especially the stories that started out kind of innocent yet ended up as fatal accidents. Those stories had an impact on him."
Whether students try CD or classroom training, surely one aim is to keep them from becoming an example in a future class. Snowmobiles are easily capable of moving 80 mph, Brooks said, and they aren't traveling on roads that are sloped and engineered to handle that speed.
"It can be a dangerous sport if put in the hands of an uneducated user," agreed Mark Larsen, who chairs the Governor's Snowmobile Recreation Council.
Safety training can get us part of the way there, Brooks said, but there also needs to be a social change among our snowmobilers. Among other steps, they have to take on the same attitude that the international snowmobiling community has, which is zero tolerance for drinking and operating a snowmobile.
Perhaps early instruction by CD-Rom, classroom and in the field will help a greater number of future snowmobilers learn their limits, respect their machines, watch for signals, and anticipate what may be coming down the trail as they aim for safe, enjoyable rides.
David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.