Safety key for state’s snow sled enthusiasts

Posted Jan. 19, 2009, at 11:25 p.m.

For nearly 16 years — ever since he began wearing the green uniform of the Maine Warden Service — Jim Fahey has investigated all kinds of snowmobile incidents.

Notice the word “incidents.”

Wardens like Fahey prefer that word, for a simple reason.

“I’m very hesitant, and most wardens are very reluctant, to even call these crashes accidents,” Fahey said last week. “To me, an accident implies something that was unavoidable. Things do happen that I would truly [say], ‘That was an accident.’ But there are many things that happened that it’s very obvious why they happened and to me it’s a ‘crash’ or an ‘incident.’”

Seeing as how most of the state received another foot or more of snow Sunday, snowmobile enthusiasts are among those who benefit the most directly.

They’re also those who ought to listen the most clearly to Fahey’s safety message, a warning state fish and wildlife officials issue each year.

Yes, snowmobiling can be fun. But there’s nothing that ruins a wonderful day outdoors than an avoidable incident … or crash … or accident.

Fahey said that in his experience, most snowmobile crashes occur for one or two basic reasons.

“The ones that we always hear about, but it’s true: It’s speed and it’s alcohol,” Fahey said. “And probably speed, in my estimation, is the root of most problems because you can have a sober operator, in the middle of the afternoon, that’s going fast, that’s going to possibly injure himself or someone else.”

Most of the state’s snowmobilers take that safety message to heart, and enjoy winter’s bounty on a vast network of trails that can take them to some of Maine’s most scenic areas. According to the Maine Snowmobile Association Web site, more than 102,000 riders shared more than 13,500 miles of trails.

But Fahey has seen the other side of the snowmobiling boom, and knows that every rider he and other wardens can help operate more safely makes the sport better for all.

“I think [one] of the differences between now and 30 years ago, if you went 30 mph on a Skidoo Elan 250T, if you could even go 30 mph, you’d know it,” Fahey said of one old sled. “You’d feel like you were at the rodeo.”

Nowadays, advances in technology have led to high-powered, smooth-riding sleds that can go 100 mph or faster, right off the showroom floor, he said.

Fahey said he has interviewed plenty of riders who’d been in accidents, and has heard a common refrain.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘Well, Warden, I wasn’t going that fast. I was only going 35 or 40.’ I say, ‘Well, don’t tell me 40 mph isn’t fast.’”

Fahey said he challenges those riders to think of how little momentum it takes for a human to feel pain.

“I say, ‘Have you ever walked into a sliding glass door at foot speed, bumped your nose? It hurts, and that’s at foot speed,’” Fahey said.

At speeds of 20 or 40 or 60 mph, losing control of a sled and hitting a stationary object can be catastrophic, Fahey points out.

Snowmobilers already know that, of course, but a few choose not to think about it.

Fahey doesn’t enjoy that luxury, because it’s people like him who are called when things go terribly wrong.

“How many pounds of pressure does it take to break a rib?” Fahey asked. “I don’t know, but it’s probably not very much. But when ribs break and start punching lungs and hearts and organs, bad things happen.”

And those bad things can happen even if a rider isn’t operating his sled at high speed.

“I’ve seen some fatal crashes occur when the speed involved was about 25 mph,” Fahey said.

Each year, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife reinforces its snowmobile safety message.

Each year, wardens set up details designed not only to catch violators, but educate the public about safe sledding.

And each year, avoidable incidents take place.

Fahey understands that. But like his fellow wardens, he feels the safety message is so important, it needs to be spread at every opportunity.

He advises riders to avoid alcohol, to make sure they stay on the right-hand side of trails, especially on corners, and to drive at appropriate speeds for the conditions they encounter.

And he hopes riders take a moment to realize how many other folks they’re sharing the trails with.

“It’s for everyone’s good to have a safe trail,” Fahey said. “[Trails are] not a one-way racetrack for guys that are capable of driving 300 miles on a weekend. It’s for the young. It’s for the old.”

Every rider has the responsibility to know the state’s snowmobile laws, which include special provisions devoted to younger riders.

Fahey said through their conduct, a few riders seem to have forgotten why the sport has become so popular.

Not so long ago, that wasn’t the case, and getting from Point A to Point B or C or Z could prove impossible. Then a sizeable group of snowmobile riders decided to band together and try to make things better for everybody. They succeeded, and the Interconnected Trail System is one of many advancements that resulted.

Fahey said those early riders deserve some respect that they don’t always receive.

“I have felt bad for some retired people I know that pioneered the whole ITS system, and know there were places they didn’t dare to ride,” Fahey said. “It’s a crying shame. I’ve tried to make that point when I could that [snowmobiling on the trails] is for everybody.”

jholyoke@bangordailynews.net

990-8214

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