Feb. 13, 2006 – Safety study author calls for increased laws

The author of a recent study on snowmobile injuries is calling for increased safety legislation, especially for children.
The study, published in the January issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, looked at 43 children under the age of 18 who went to the emergency room following a snowmobile accident in which they either were ejected, struck a stationary object or were struck by a car. Almost half of them had multiple injuries.
Many of these injuries could have been prevented by increased safety legislation, said Dr. Scott Zietlow, a trauma surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, which did the study.
For Zietlow, requiring helmets would be the first step toward increased safety. Only 23 of the children in the study wore helmets. Eight patients received head injuries.
Christine Jourdain, executive director of the American Council of Snowmobile Associations, was incredulous that only about half of the children were wearing helmets.
Nearly all states require riders to wear a helmet, Jourdain said, noting helmets also keep the head warm and their visors break the wind.
Jourdain was concerned about parents not investing in the safety of their children. “From our standpoint, our stumbling block is how do you legislate common sense?” she said.
While Zietlow was astonished by some of the results the study found, he said he’s not out to demonize snowmobiling. He’s an avid rider himself and always wears a helmet, whether he’s on a snowmobile, skis or a motorcycle.
“We’re looking at ways to avoid injuries,” he said. “All of these are fun activities, but how can we enjoy them and be safe?”
Zietlow raises concern with the number of children who were driving snowmobiles when the accidents occurred. Twenty-seven children were at the handlebars at the time of collision. Zietlow and the other authors of the study would be in favor of a 16-and-over policy for snowmobile driving. In most states, there is a minimum age to drive a snowmobile on public property. The limit is often set by states at 12 or 14 years old and does not apply on private property.
Children may have a difficult time controlling snowmobiles, due to the size, weight and speed capabilities of the machines, according to the study.
That’s why Zietlow believes drivers should have to demonstrate the skills and strength needed to control a snowmobile before they are able to drive one. While there is a licensing process for driving a car or motorcycle on public roads, there is no such system for driving snowmobiles on public property, likely because of the difficulty of enforcing such a requirement, Jourdain said. However, many states do require potential snowmobile drivers to take a certification class.
Speed was another factor in many of the accidents. One-third of the cases involved speeds greater than 50 mph. At such speeds the potential for an accident grows because a snowmobile’s stopping distance is farther than the headlights reach, Zietlow said.
That one-third of the children were placed in intensive care and 15 percent had long-term disabilities should be enough to make people realize how important it is to be cautious whenever a child is driving or riding a snowmobile, Zietlow said.
Enforcement is the difficult part, Zietlow said, but he hopes to keep the conversation going about snowmobile safety. psb

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