AUGUSTA, Maine — With winter hardly upon the state and two snowmobile fatalities already having occurred, the Maine Warden’s Service will be stepping up checkpoints and enforcement programs until the end of the season.
Gov. John Baldacci, Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Danny Martin, Warden Col. Joe Wilkinson and Maine Snowmobile Association President Bob Myers announced the policy at a press conference Tuesday at department headquarters.
Baldacci described snowmobiling as an industry that runs a $300 million annual economic engine and provides fun and recreation for Maine families and visitors. More than 100,000 sleds are registered in the state.
Baldacci said that with snowmobile accidents claiming the lives of two teenage boys this month and 12 fatalities last year, the need for people to be aware of safety issues cannot be stressed enough.
Not only will game wardens be out in force this winter, the governor also pledged to use the assets of the Maine State Police if safety problems exist along the state’s 13,000 miles of snowmobile trails.
“It’s important to be serious about safety,” Baldacci said. “It’s a great industry and a great opportunity, and we think we have some of the best trails in the country.”
Commissioner Martin urged all riders to wear their helmets, ride at a reasonable speed based on the conditions, never climb aboard a sled after drinking, and to let family members know where they are headed when they go for a ride and when they will return.
Col. Wilkinson said the Warden’s Service and the Maine Snowmobile Association have been working together on safety and other issues for the past few years. He said both groups have the same objectives: “We both love the sport, and we both want it to be safe.”
Last year the wardens conducted numerous special enforcement details throughout the state. Of the 2,100 sleds that passed through the checkpoints, 48 riders were issued summonses and 15 were given warnings. The department also conducted 44 search and rescue missions last year at a cost of $50,000.
Wilkinson added that the carelessness of others does affect the reputation of the sport. He cited speeding and drunken sledders as problems that need to be addressed. There also are some riders who damage privately owned lands the trails cross. Without the support of local landowners, the sport could be in jeopardy. That is why it is important to respect the surroundings and ride safely, he said.
“This year we’re going to be out there early to get the message out,” he said. “When you see a checkpoint, slow down and follow the warden’s directions.”
Although drunken snowmobilers are not faced with the loss of their driver’s license, they can be fined a minimum of $400 and could be sent to jail depending on the level of intoxication.
“Drunken snowmobilers will not be tolerated,” Wilkinson said.
MSA president Myers said that considering the number of people who ride snowmobiles every winter, the sport had a “surprisingly good” safety record. He added that the trail system is now part of the 911 grid and that the state’s 290 snowmobile clubs have made a major effort to prepare and design the trails for safety.
“The challenge is that snowmobiling is fun,” Myers said. “When we have a big storm, the temptation is to hop on your sled and go.”