REGIONAL – A pair of fatal accidents involving residents of the Town of Shawangunk have focused attention on snowmobiles once again.
The funeral for 16 year old, Alexander Watkins-Blazeski brought hundreds of people out to express their grief. Alex Blazeski was well loved in the community, and an Honor Society student at Pine Bush High School who got up at three in the morning to milk the cows on his family's farm.
He was killed when he lost control of an Arctic Cat snowmobile and struck a tree.
Earlier, Richard Petty, a well-known local business man, was killed further upstate when he was thrown from his snowmobile against a tree.
Inevitably, such fatalities raise concerns. Are snowmobiles safe? Should anyone under the age of 18 be allowed to operate one?
"Adults over the age of 18 can ride a snowmobile without formal training, though we strongly recommend they take a safety course," noted Anne O'Dell, a Shawangunk resident who is the general manager of the New York State Snowmobile Association. "The safety course is required for under-18s... but unsafe speed is the primary cause of accidents."
In New York State it is illegal to ride a snowmobile above 55 mph, in a careless, reckless manner, or while intoxicated. Lights are required, snowmobiles may not be ridden on the tracks of an operating railroad, on private property without consent of the owner, nor within 100 feet of a dwelling between midnight and 6 a.m. at a speed greater than the minimum for maintaining forward motion.
Snowmobile associations across the country have campaigned hard to stop drinking and riding. O'Dell adds that fatalities have trended down from 26 ten years ago to just 5 last season in the state.
"With alcohol in the past, and slower sleds, there was a perception that you could ride from bar to bar," she said. "You were out on the trails for longer, the machines were much slower. And a perception of too much alcohol consumption became set. Today, though, there is a completely different mindset. People understand that the machine must be respected. Drinking and driving is not cool anymore. You do your riding and later you drink beer at the end of the day."
The snowmobile has had a checkered history in popular culture. The first US patent for a snow-vehicle came in 1916. Modified Model T Fords were a popular basis for snow vehicles, employing skis on the front and tires on the back. Carl Eliason, of Sayner WI produced the first real snowmobile in 1924, with an outboard motor engine, a toboggan with skis under the front, and a single endless track for propulsion.
After World War 2 there came a boom in snowmobiles, with the Polaris Sno Traveler of 1956 as perhaps the first, real modern snowmobile. However, the early machines used two stroke engines with carburetors and emitted a lot of pollution. They were also loud, even though O'Dell recalled that they were also pretty safe,
"The 1970s snowmobile had a top speed of thirty miles an hour," O'Dell continued. "Today's machines are more powerful. They have more safety features, they burn clean because they have computer controlled fuel injection systems, and they're much quieter. But they're capable of speeds up to a hundred miles an hour."
In the 1990s the snowmobile entered the culture wars with fingerpointing from both sides as "tree huggers" did media combat with "polluting barbarians." And in our region, development turned out to be the snowmobiler's real enemy.
"The trails in this area are gone because of development," O'Dell explained. "The only safe trail system here is in Stewart State Forest, and that is maintained by the Rock Tavern Snow Riders, one of the four local clubs here... For me to ride on a snowmobile, it must be put on a trailer and taken somewhere north or west."
Despite the loss of trails in our area, New York State now boasts 10,500 miles of approved snowmobile trails.
"It's really lovely to ride on a well groomed trail," O'Dell said. "There are 235 clubs across the state, all volunteer, and we go out in the fall to look at the trails and mark their boundaries on left and right so riders will know where the safe passage is. Crossing a field, we will mark out a corridor with wooden stakes with reflectors, and that indicates where you are to ride. If you ride outside that corridor you are setting yourself up for an accident."
Common causes of accidents are things such as hitting a rock or tree stump hidden beneath the snow cover, or travelling too fast and losing control and hitting a tree or other solid object, or being thrown from the vehicle.
There are 102,000 registered snowmobiles in New York right now. The numbers have fluctuated in recent years, as the climate has changed. The non-winter of 2011-12 dropped registrations from 134,566 to 90,433.
Anne O'Dell makes the economic case for snowmobilers.
"The clubs around here — the Tawaeri Taqui of Rosendale, the Shawangunk Snowmobile and Rescue Club, the Greenwood Lake Snowballers and Rock Tavern Snow Riders — are mainly social clubs. They get together for charitable works, fund raising and they operate safety courses," she said. "But when we go upstate, we often go in big groups. Like this weekend, fifty of us will be going up to Rome to ride on trails there. So, you have the hotels, the restaurants, all the local businesses benefiting from our presence."
At which point O'Dell again stressed the obvious.
"The safest place to ride a snowmobile is on a designated trail, signed and posted by a snowmobile club," she said in the wake of her town's recent tragedies. "We generally don't advocate riding off-trail."