New York state has long touted itself as a leader in snowmobile education, but it’s the tiny Montgomery County town of Florida that kicks off this effort each year.
Young snowmobilers are required to complete a state-sanctioned snowmobile safety course if they wish to operate a snowmobile without adult supervision, and no one has educated more local children than state-certified instructor Marilyn Sawyer.
“We’re the earliest course,” she said, “so we get people from all over the region — Fulton, Montgomery, Schoharie and Saratoga counties — but we even tend to get people from as far away as New Jersey and Connecticut some years. They have property up here, and they ride up here.”
About 40 kids packed the Florida town barn Saturday, eager to get a head start on the winter snowmobiling season by earning their New York state Snowmobile Safety Certificate well before there’s even snow on the ground. Sawyer has been holding the annual safety course for 15 years, with hers in early November and others around the state running all the way through to January.
As snowmobiles get bigger and faster, instructors are serious about making sure today’s youth are properly trained to handle the potentially deadly machines. Unsafe speed is overwhelmingly the primary cause of snowmobile accidents, and most of the time this doesn’t mean an operator was driving above the posted speed limit.
“It’s usually because they were riding too fast for the weather or too fast for the trail or too fast through an intersection,” said state police Trooper Craig Eggleston, who spoke to a room of young riders Saturday.
Another major cause of snowmobile accidents in the state is operator inexperience, so Sawyer spends time during the eight-hour course teaching kids each part of the machine, basic riding positions and concepts like “if you don’t know, don’t go.”
“Lakes are fun to ride on, but they are not always frozen over by the time some people start sledding each season,” she explained. “Water safety is big for us.”
Children 10 and older need a state safety certificate if they wish to operate a snowmobile on public trails or state-owned land. Children ages 10 to 13 must have adult accompaniment to operate a snowmobile, though, regardless of whether they have a certificate.
Sawyer said one of the biggest concerns she has for young snowmobilers is the potential for drunken driving while out on the trails. Drinking at trailside taverns and restaurants is prevalent among adults in the snowmobiling world, and efforts to stop it have seen little success.
“Think about it,” said Sawyer. “There are all these trails like up on Tug Hill and in Fulton County, where a lot of places and establishments serve alcohol. So, you’re out on a snow machine and you stop to eat, you’re going to have access to alcohol. When you’re out on these long rides, you have to stop at these places to eat and go to the bathroom and get warm, and they all serve alcohol, so it’s very easy for people to stop and get drunk. The kids learn from us that it’s wrong, but they still see adults doing it, and so we try to stress how unsafe it is.”
The Town of Florida Snowmobile Club sponsored lunch for the kids Saturday and urged them and their parents to become members if they lived locally. The club maintains and grooms local trails each winter and on Saturday was marking trees with arrows and stop signs.
Club President Kevin Adams said he has noticed the number of accidents dwindle over the years on the local trail system, which includes the Mohawk-Hudson bike/hike trail and a portion of the state forest in the town of Glen.
“We’ve only had one or two accidents, and none of them have been young kids,” he said. “They seem to be absorbing this message of safety we put out there.”