LAKE PLACID - It's national Snowmobile Safety Week, and several fatal snowmobile accidents throughout the North Country and Champlain Valley are serving as stern reminders for snowmobile enthusiasts.
Last week, a Clinton County man was killed in an accident near St. Regis Falls. Then, on Jan. 9, three individuals died after the snowmobiles they were riding went through the ice on Lake Dunmore in Vermont.
And on Jan. 10, a Herkimer man was killed after he exited the trail and was ejected from his sled.
Carol Ash is commissioner of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. She called upon snowmobilers to exercise caution and avoid drinking alcohol before riding.
"Snowmobiles, unsafe speeds and alcohol have proven to be a deadly combination," Ash said. "Zero alcohol is the smart choice to make snowmobiling safer."
There's about 140,000 registered snowmobiles in New York, and Ash notes the vast majority of those operators practice safe riding. She adds that 24 out of the 83 snowmobile-related fatalities in the last five years were due to excessive speed and alcohol.
For Lake Placid Snowmobile Club President Jim McCulley, the easiest way to avoid problems on the trails is to treat the snowmobile like a motor vehicle.
"Snowmobiles are no different than a car," he said. "You must stay right. There's no protection if you get in an accident on a snowmobile. If you drive at a reasonable speed, pay attention to what's going on in front of you - those are the kinds of things snowmobilers have to do for safety. And, obviously, you don't go down a trail that you've never been down before at a high rate of speed. The bottom line is, is you have to be paying attention at all times; really, for everyone on the trail system, for their safety too."
The state parks office also reminds riders to check weather conditions before venturing out, and Ash noted that keeping to marked trails where snowmobiling is permitted is required.
"Good preparation is essential to minimize the risks and maximize the fun of snowmobiling," Ash said.
McCulley said common sense is generally the difference between a fun day on the trails and accidents.
"People who don't use common sense run into trouble," he said.
McCulley added there's a few things the state can do to make common sense snowmobiling the law, not just a suggestion.
"I think there's some things that the state needs to do to promote snowmobile safety," he said. "Making mirrors mandatory on snowmobiles is one of them. I really think that'd be an important adjustment. I think a lot of people are injured every year because they're looking back to see where their friends are; whereas if they had a mirror, they could just look to the side and they'd know where they are."
While not necessarily an issue of safety - although it could be perceived as such - McCulley reminded riders not to enter private land.
"Trespass is one of our biggest problems in snowmobiling," he said. "Even if you know a person and you're driving across their land, unless they've given you expressed permission to go across that land, you do not have the right to leave the trail system and go across someone else's property."
McCulley said often times, snowmobilers believe they have the right to enter private property because of registration fees they've paid.
McCulley also stressed another issue not exactly in the realm of snowmobile safety.
"It's time that snowmobilers that are running illegal pipes be taken to task for it," he said. "The biggest complaint about snowmobiling is noise. Well, there's maybe five percent of sleds with illegal pipes creating 90 percent of the problems. There's laws on it; I've been talking to DEC officials, and I'm hoping they're going to enforce those laws."
And it's that matter of law enforcement that McCulley would like to see more of.
"We need to see law enforcement out on the trails," he said. "It's just like when you're driving down the Northway - you're not even speeding, but as soon as you see a state trooper car, you hit the brakes. It just reminds people to stop the aggressive driving and realize that there's more to it than just them on the trail system."
According to McCulley - who's logged between 300 and 400 miles this year - area snowmobile trails are in great condition. He and others have groomed the railroad bed in Lake Placid a few times, and Mother Nature has done her part.
"The trails are in good shape and improving every day," he said. "The trail system is really shaping up nice; it's been phenomenal."