Officials are urging snowmobilers to slow down and drive safely in the wake of several accidents that left five snowmobilers dead over a three-day period starting last weekend.
Those deaths, including that of a Niskayuna man killed in Hamilton County, bring the total number of snowmobile fatalities in the state so far this winter to 14 — nearly three times the number of riders killed last winter.
The five who died snowmobiling in the entire winter of 2011-12 was an unusually low total because there was little snow last winter and few riding opportunities. The fatality number so far this year is close to the historic average.
“When you look at previous years it is not unusual, but it concerns us,” said Dominic Jacangelo, executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association. “We don’t want to see anyone hurt while engaging in a recreational activity.”
In other winters between 2000 and 2011, there have been between 14 and 26 snowmobile deaths each year, according to state statistics. Years with good riding tend to see higher fatality totals, Jacangelo said.
Among the deaths last weekend was a 51-year-old Niskayuna man, Paul Prill IV, who was killed in a head-on collision between two snowmobiles on the surface of Indian Lake Saturday evening. The other driver, from Rockland County, was also killed. State police said alcohol was a factor in the crash.
Then on Monday, 78- and 87-year-old men from St. Lawrence County died when their snowmobiles unexpectedly hit open water while they were riding on a frozen reservoir. Also Saturday night, a Herkimer County man was killed when his snowmobile failed to negotiate a curve and hit a tree.
But those were only the most recent incidents.
The weekend of Jan. 20-21 saw three deaths in a 24-hour period in Lewis County, which has a well-developed system of off-road trails and is located on the snowy Tug Hill Plateau. In Fulton County, a Caroga Lake man died Feb. 2 when his snowmobile ran into rocks sticking up through the surface of Pine Lake. Authorities believe the driver had been drinking.
Speed and alcohol
Speed is a common factor in snowmobile accidents, according to state statistics, and alcohol is a factor in about half of all fatalities.
“We repeatedly and regularly like to remind snowmobile users to use extreme caution and refrain from drinking alcohol before and during their ride,” said Randy Simons, a spokesman for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
OPRHP oversees the state’s snowmobile program, including offering safety courses and providing money for trail maintenance.
This winter has been only somewhat better than last year for those who like to ride. Areas like the Capital Region have had very few days with snow sufficient for snowmobiling, but Tug Hill and the central Adirondacks have had enough lake-effect snow from off Lake Ontario to allow good riding conditions.
That’s been good for communities snowmobilers visit; the activity is worth hundreds of millions each winter in economic activity, according to a study the snowmobile association funded.
Jacangelo said the state association urges its members to maintain a prudent speed and ride within their abilities.
“The association takes the position that no alcohol should be consumed while riding,” Jacangelo said. “Snowmobiling is challenging and it takes all your abilities. You’re in a natural environment, much less protected than when you’re on a road.”
Riders also need to be aware of changing weather and respond appropriately, he said.
“I don’t know how many times we have to say it, slow down,” Jacangelo said.
State officials offered many of the same tips, and both state officials and the association said people shouldn’t ride alone.
The number of snowmobile registrations dropped to about 90,000 in 2011-12, down from about 130,000 in most recent winters. The number has rebounded this winter, but not to the levels of earlier years.
In the Capital Region, Saratoga County has the most registrations, at 2,676, based on 2011-2012 statistics. That was the fifth-highest total in the state.
Information is available here.