It seems like every winter, about a half dozen people or so are killed on a snowmobile in Newfoundland and Labrador. Each tragic death gets covered in the news, but broader story of why this province has such a disproportionately high number of snowmobiling deaths is largely ignored. With the current season all but over, I count 5 snowmobiling deaths so far, which is sadly not at all out of the ordinary.
I should point out that most snowmobilers in the province are responsible and that many snowmobiling deaths are purely the result of bad luck. Nevertheless, the consistently high number of deaths year after year suggests that there may be some underlying problems that need to be confronted.
Drinking and driving has thankfully gone down dramatically over the past couple of decades. Police recently set up a road block in the St. John’s area and didn’t catch a single drunk driver. Unfortunately, people do not have the same enlightened view when it comes to drinking and operating a snow mobile. Many otherwise upstanding citizens who wouldn’t get behind the wheel of a car after a couple pints at a bar think nothing of taking a dozen cans of beer with them for their day out snowmobiling. Drink six beers and drive home and people will look at you like you are some sort of menace society. Drink six beers while you are snowmobiling and you may be looked at as being the responsible one.
There are two reasons why someone who wouldn’t drink and drive but would think nothing of riding their snowmobile while impaired. One is that the chances of getting caught by the police is much higher in a car than a snowmobile. The most important reason though is the perception that it is only your own life that you are risking when riding a snowmobile drunk. Though it is true you are more likely to kill someone else in a car, people can and do kill others on snowmobiles. Moreover, even if you don’t kill another person, you will certainly be inflicting pain and suffering on the spouses, children, and parents that get left behind. A cavalier attitude towards riding while impaired may not be the only problem; we may be just as cavalier when it comes to danger.
For much of our history, a sizeable portion of the population earned a living by risking their lives on small boats in some of the roughest seas on earth. Fishermen accepted these risks as a way of life and for the most part didn’t even bother to learn how to swim. Perhaps this acceptance of risk that has been ingrained in us over many generations may help explain why so many people continue to make a hobby out of risking their own lives.
It won’t be easy, but the attitudes of a sizeable minority of snowmobilers need to change. While neither the government nor police can stop people from riding recklessly and/or drunk, they can track and publicize how many people die in snowmobile accidents in the province and how it compares to the rest of Canada. The comparative data is difficult to find, but I did see one 15 year old report in which there were 8 fatalities in Newfoundland and Labrador one year, compared with only 1 in BC and 3 in Alberta, provinces with much greater populations. Ontario, a province with 20 times our population only had twice as many fatalities. The more people are confronted with this kind of information, the more likely they will be to do something about this problem.