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Alcohol, snowmobiles a deadly combination


Friday, January 13, 2006 By Howard Meyerson The Grand Rapids Press

Ihave to admit, I've been fuming about the weather. The sudden turn just before Christmas really dashed my plans for cross-country skiing.

It put the kibosh on a lot of people's plans, but maybe that was providential. A fair guess is that a number of people are living today because of it.

Five people were killed riding snowmobiles during the cold spell Dec. 3-17. Two more riders died in the first 10 days of January.

That brings the death toll to seven so far. One can only imagine where things would stand if the state had been blanketed in deep snow.

Deaths take a drop

Having said that, it should be noted that fewer riders were killed last winter compared to the winter before -- 26 compared to 46.

Snowmobile enthusiasts lauded the fact that it was the first winter in a decade in which fewer than 30 people died.

I suppose that's good news, but if so, we've developed a twisted tolerance for the subject. There is no other outdoor recreation in the state in which so many deaths are greeted with so little outrage.

If 26 Michigan hunters shot themselves and died on a regular basis, the state would investigate. The public would scream bloody murder. A stepped-up education campaign would follow. The legislature would thump its collective chest.

Getting drunk on snowmobiles

Cynics would resort to taking bets and snorting about the Darwinian nature of it all. Wives and children would still cry with anguish at solemn funerals.

"Given everything that we've been doing, it just amazes me that there are people still out getting drunk on their snowmobiles. But maybe it shouldn't," said Bill Manson, the legislative director for the Michigan Snowmobile Association (MSA).

Organized groups like the MSA, have been pushing a zero-tolerance policy for years. They have stressed the need for sobriety on the trails, safe-riding practices, the need for mandatory rider education and legal consequences when laws are broken.

Yet alcohol was implicated in four of the five deaths that occurred in December. It is unknown so far whether alcohol was involved in the two most recent fatalities. Nine of the 26 deaths last year involved a driver who was drinking. The spread of victims also is different this winter. Young bucks are the ones who usually kill themselves. The invincibles. Or so they believe. But not so this year.

"I used to blame it on the flat-belly guys, but these guys are all old enough to know better," said Manson.

In fact, the five men who died in December ranged in age from 39 to 63. Two were 44. Not the typical 30-and-under crowd.

New Years Day was when a 30-year-old rider in Washtenaw County died for reasons still unknown. But the rest all hit trees.

They may have crested a hill and hit a tree or lost control and hit a tree. But they hit a tree and lost their life and most were drinking. Those are the facts.

"We are seeing an improvement," Manson said. "When I go into a bar (on a ride) I order pop. When I look around I see that most are drinking pop, not beer.

"We saw it go down from almost 50 to 26 last year. We had a good year given the millions of miles that snowmobilers rode in Michigan. Only the few that are drinking are killing themselves."

I say hooray for the improvement. I mean that sincerely. I have no doubt that MSA is doing a good job. It's just that human nature being what it is, I'd put my money on the season tally that results from a lack of snow.
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