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On Average, 15 Snowmobilers Die Every Season - Can Anything Be Done to Lower the Numbers?

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Statistically speaking, people are much more likely to have a fatal car crash than die while operating a snowmobile. But every winter, fatal snowmobile accidents garner a lot of public interest, and this year is on track to top the average number of deaths.

The yearly average for fatal snowmobile accidents falls somewhere around 15 per season. In the 2022-23 season, there have been 13 fatal snowmobile accidents already, and there is still more than a month left in the state-designated trail season, which runs Dec. 1-March 31.

For fatal crashes, speed is a significant factor. Alcohol and drugs are another leading cause. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, here are some explanations for this season’s accidents:

  • Operator aggressively accelerated after crossing roadway and lost control. Snowmobile left the trail striking a wooden post.
  • Operator failed to negotiate a curve in the trail and exited into a wooded area, striking several trees, and was ejected from the snowmobile.
  • Subject left the trail in a straight away and struck a tree.
  • Operator failed to negotiate curve at a “y” intersection, causing the snowmobile to go off the groomed trail striking multiple small stumps. Rider was ejected from the snowmobile and struck a tree.
  • Operator lost control navigating a curve. Ejected from snowmobile.


Mike Hearn is a conservation officer specializing in ORV and snowmobiles for the law enforcement division of the DNR. During his time as a field officer, Hearn was on the scene of many fatal snowmobile crashes in the northern Lower Peninsula.

“In my experience, the vast majority of snowmobile accidents and fatalities are people overriding their abilities and their inexperience. That is how the speed comes into play,” Hearn said.

In the Lower Peninsula, Hearn describes the trails as winding. In comparison, the Upper Peninsula has trails that offer longer straightaways.

“It seems like our trails are a lot of winding and back and forth, you can go fast, but it’s only for a limited amount of time, then you have to bring it down and hit a corner. I don’t think they are designed for a particular speed, but based on your riding ability, especially on some of the trails around here, you are moving if you are doing 45-50 mph,” Hearn said.


If a snowmobile is on a seasonal road, or county road, the limit is set the same as it would be for cars, Hearn said.

But, he added, “If you are just on a trail in the middle of nowhere, and it’s just a forest road, there is no speed limit. The bulk of our trails are that.”

With unlimited speed limits in a lot of places, riders trying to keep up with the pack, or not knowing the trail system, sometimes override their ability.

Of the 13 fatal crashes in the 2021-22 season, speed was a factor in most. The crash reports explain:

  • Operator failed to negotiate corner, leaving groomed snowmobile trail and striking a tree. Speed is a contributing factor.
  • Operator failed to negotiate corner, leaving groomed trail and striking several trees. Speed a contributing factor.
  • Operator failed to negotiate left curve on groomed snowmobile trail. Upon leaving trail the operator was thrown from the machine into a tree. Speed is a contributing factor in the crash.
  • Operator traveling on snowmobile trail that was being plowed for logging purposes. Operator struck logging truck traveling in the opposite direction when coming around a corner. Speed is the contributing factor with the crash.
  • Operator failed to left corner on groomed snowmobile trail. Upon leaving the trail, snowmobile struck a tree stump causing it to overturn and eject the driver into a tree. Alcohol (suspected) and speed are contributing factors in the crash.
  • Operator traveling on snow covered county road. Failed to negotiate turn leaving roadway and striking a tree. Alcohol and speed are contributing factors in the crash.

Under the Influence

In Michigan, single-vehicle crashes are the most common kind in motor vehicles. This is also true of snowmobile accidents.

In motor vehicles, alcohol-involved fatalities increased from 326 in 2020 to 357 in 2021.

“Just last year from 20-21, we saw a 10% increase in alcohol-related fatalities, and we also saw a 10% increase in serious-injury crashes. Injuries increased overall 17%. I think we are seeing a lot of people out there driving beyond their abilities. We believe reducing impaired driving (and) seatbelt use we will see a reduction,” said Lt. Derrick Carroll of the Michigan State Police.

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Hearn said many of the snowmobile accidents also have drugs or alcohol involved as factors.


“In my experience, it just seems that the bulk of the accidents, 10-15% of overall crashes, alcohol and drugs are involved. For fatalities, that number increases to about 30%,” Hearn said.

In the 2021-22 season, of the 13 fatalities, seven were confirmed or suspected to involve drugs and/or alcohol.

Not driving under the influence, and understanding your vehicle and road conditions, could significantly decrease your risk of crashing in both driving a vehicle and riding a snowmobile.

“The two most effective ways we see in reducing fatal crashes is increasing seat belt use and reducing impaired driving. There is a lot of people out there driving beyond their abilities and you have to know your vehicles capability. Not all vehicles are the same,” Carroll said.

Education requirement lacking

Other recreational motor vehicles require education courses for riders, particularly those 16 and younger. Boaters born after June 30, 1996, and most personal watercraft operators who operate a vessel in Michigan must have a boater education card, also known as a boating safety certificate. For ORVs, operators under age 16 in Michigan must take an approved ORV education course.

“When you compare the snowmobile and ORV safety programs to boater education, you can’t even compare them because those numbers are so drastically different,” Hearn said.

In snowmobiling, those under the age of 12 may not operate a snowmobile without direct supervision of an adult, except on property owned or controlled by the parent or legal guardian. They also may not cross a highway or street. Those who are at least 12 but less than 17 years of age can operate a snowmobile if they have a valid snowmobile safety certificate in their immediate possession, or are under the direct supervision of a person 21 years of age or older. They may not cross a highway or street without having a valid snowmobile safety certificate in their immediate possession.

“Snowmobile law in Michigan doesn’t require anyone to take snowmobile education... As opposed to the ORV program, anyone under the age of 16 has to have an ORV safety certification, it doesn’t matter if you’re on your own property or on the trail system – you have to have it,” Hearn said.

The DNR recommends all new riders participate in the snowmobile safety course, even if they have aged out of the requirement.

“A lot of the snowmobilers aren’t residents up here, they are living downstate or these more urban areas, and they don’t get the opportunity to snowmobile every day like residents do up here. They are coming up to ride here on the weekend, and they only ride 5-6 times a year. Even though they’ve been riding their entire life, if you’re not doing it on a consistent basis, you’re going to lose that comfort factor and that causes you to override your abilities,” Hearn said.

Data changes enforcement

“Something we learned while looking at the crash data over the last year is that a lot of the snowmobile accidents happen from 1-2 p.m. until about 6 p.m. Throughout my entire career as a field officer, we were under the impression that the bulk of these accidents happen in the middle of the night after the bars close, but that’s not the case,” Hearn said.

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The data is helping the DNR enforcement division learn how to better disperse their resources in order to maximize safety on the trail system.

“We learned our presence is needed during those afternoon hours when people are on the trail system, so that’s how we learned to change our enforcement efforts,” Hearn said.

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