Recommendations for snowmobile safety
Posted: Nov 1 2004 | Reaffirmed: Jan 30 2013
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R Stanwick; Canadian Paediatric Society, Injury Prevention Committee
Paediatr Child Health 2004;9(9):639-42
Snowmobiles continue to pose a significant risk to children younger than 15 years of age and young adults aged 15 to 24 years. Head injuries remain the leading cause of mortality and serious morbidity, arising largely when snowmobilers collide, fall or overturn during operation. Children have also been injured while being towed by snowmobiles in a variety of conveyances. No uniform code of provincial or territorial laws governs the use of snowmobiles by children and youth. Because evidence supporting the effectiveness of operator safety certification is lacking, and because many children and adolescents do not have the required strength and skills to operate a snowmobile safely, the Canadian Paediatric Society does not recommend the recreational operation of snowmobiles by persons younger than 16 years of age. Snowmobiles should not be used to tow anyone on a tube, tire, sled or saucer. Furthermore, we recommend a graduated licensing program for snowmobilers 16 years of age and older. This statement suggests both active and passive snowmobile injury prevention strategies, and recommends that manufacturers make safer equipment for snowmobilers of all ages.
In Canada, snowmobiling is associated with the highest rate of serious injury of any popular winter sport. It is also an activity in which younger people are more likely to be the victims . The popularity of snowmobiles has increased  along with their size and speed . The National Electronic Injury Surveillance System of the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reported no decline in snowmobile injuries during the past 10 years. The average annual number of snowmobile injuries treated in American emergency departments in 1997 and 1998 was more than 10,000. Of these injuries, 10% occurred in children younger than 15 years of age, and another 25% occurred in adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 24 years (D Tinsworth, CPSC, personal communications).
The Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting and Prevention Program, a computerized information system that collects and analyzes data on injuries of people who are seen at the emergency departments of 10 paediatric hospitals and six general hospitals, began data collection in 1990 at the paediatric centres, and between 1991 and 1994 in the general hospitals. A search of the entire database revealed a total of 772 files of injuries to children under the age of 16 years associated with snowmobiles from 1991 to 2001. Almost one-half of the events occurred on the weekend, primarily on private property or in bush country .
Between January 1992 and December 1997, the Death Certificate Data Files of the CPSC recorded 51 deaths in children younger than 16 years of age that were directly attributable to snowmobile use (D Tinsworth, CPSC, personal communications). This number is almost certainly an undercount. The CPSC does not routinely acquire death certificates involving collisions with licensed motor vehicles. In Canada, on average, four children under the age of 16 years die each year from snowmobile mishaps .
Among the reported deaths and injuries, boys were two to three times more likely than girls to be the victims. Head injuries are the leading cause of injury and death . Most deaths and serious injuries arise from the operators striking a fixed object such as a tree, cable or wire, or another vehicle . Children younger than 16 years of age were injured or killed when they fell from their snowmobiles, had the vehicle roll over them, or crashed the snowmobile into another snowmobile, vehicle or stationary object (D Tinsworth, personal communication, January 21, 2000, and Steve McFaull, personal communication, April 25, 2002). Near-drowning events from breaking through the ice involving children younger than 16 years of age are infrequent, in contrast to the prominence of drowning as a cause of death for older teenagers and adults . Frostbite and hypothermia are recognized hazards  and are reported infrequently. Other causes of injury included mishaps involving the loading and unloading of the snowmobile and the body of the operator striking different parts of the snowmobile during sudden stops. Burns associated with refueling mishaps have also been documented (D Tinsworth, CPSC, personal communications).
More than 50 children in each of the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System and Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting and Prevention Program samples were injured when their sled, tube, tire or saucer overturned, struck an object, or was hit by another vehicle while being towed by a snowmobile. In general, children younger than eight years of age who were injured or killed on snowmobiles tended to be passengers on snowmobiles or sleds when the incidents occurred .
Other problems associated with snowmobile operation reported in the literature include hearing loss from prolonged exposure to excess engine noise  and white finger syndrome arising from the effects of cold weather and hand-arm vibrations from the handlebar of the snowmobile . Common factors identified in other studies and contributing to snowmobile incidents include operator error, speeding, travelling on inappropriate terrain, night-time operation and alcohol use -.
Snowmobile legislation in Canada
While all provinces require that snowmobiles be registered, Manitoba provides an exemption for northern residents. Registration is a requirement in the territories only if the off-road vehicle is operated on a highway; otherwise, local governments can establish bylaws, if desired. Some provinces have no age restrictions on registering a snowmobile. Most provinces have a minimum age requirement, and some also require underage operators to provide either proof of parental permission or evidence of having taken a government-approved safety course (Table 1).
Evidence supporting that operator safety certification courses adequately educate children and youth to operate snowmobiles safely is lacking. The influence of sanctioned courses on snowmobile-related injuries to individuals younger than 16 years of age has not been assessed. Some provinces require a driver’s license to operate on or cross a public road. A few provinces and the territories have set a minimum age for such activities, either with or without adult supervision, while Alberta has no restrictions. Most provinces require snowmobile operators to have insurance, but Manitoba exempts northerners while British Columbia, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia have no requirements. Newfoundland and Labrador and the territories require insurance only if the snowmobile is used in on-road operation or to cross a highway. Saskatchewan is the only province that holds the person providing supervision of snowmobile activities liable for the actions of the individual he or she is monitoring.
British Columbia has no minimum age restriction on snowmobiling, while the territories set a limit on highway operation to 14 years of age, leaving further regulation to local bylaws. Five provinces (Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland) specify no minimum age if an adult supervises the child. The minimum age of unsupervised snowmobiling ranges from 10 years in Prince Edward Island to 16 years in Saskatchewan, with two provinces (New Brunswick and Sakskatchewan) also requiring a safety course as a condition of underage operation. The age of the ‘supervisor’ may be as young as 16 years.
Helmets are required for both the operator and the passenger in most provinces. Helmet use is required for highway operation of off-road vehicles in the territories. British Columbia, Alberta and Newfoundland have no helmet requirements. Three provinces (Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec) require helmets for anyone being towed by a snowmobile.
With the exception of British Columbia, all provinces and territories require headlights, tail lights and stop lamps on snowmobiles. Most provinces require mufflers, a few specify brakes and only Ontario requires a mirror. Quebec requires daytime lights and Prince Edward Island specifically prohibits firing a gun from a snowmobile. Only three provinces reference drug or alcohol use and a similar number specify speed limits for various venues of snowmobile operation in their legislation. With the exception of Prince Edward Island, which requires adult supervision for children younger than 10 years of age, snowmobiling on private property is exempt from restrictions.
For children younger than 16 years of age:
Recreational operation of snowmobiles is inappropriate for children and younger adolescents. Children younger than 16 years of age should not operate snowmobiles. Furthermore, children younger than six years of age do not have the strength or stamina to be transported safely as passengers on snowmobiles. Winter recreational activities for children should be developmentally appropriate.
Advertisements that promote snowmobiling should not be directed to young adolescents. Advertisements should not depict young adolescents driving snowmobiles.
For the protection of snowmobilers 16 years of age and older:
Graduated licensing for snowmobile operators, consistent with prevalent provincial and territorial policies on graduated licensing for motor vehicle drivers, is recommended . Although no direct evidence exists for the effectiveness of graduated licensing on teenage motor vehicle operators of snowmobiles, graduated licensing has been shown to be effective in reducing motor vehicle-related deaths among teenagers. Newly licensed operators should be restricted to snowmobiling during daylight hours on groomed trails only, with zero tolerance for alcohol consumption. To operate a snowmobile safely, persons should acquire a learner’s permit by taking a state-sanctioned course.
Snowmobilers should travel at safe speeds, especially on unfamiliar or rugged terrain where hazards, such as difficult-to-see barbed wire, may be encountered. A speed-limiting governor, to limit the maximum speed, is suggested for newly licensed operators.
Irrespective of age, snowmobilers should avoid the use of alcohol or other drugs before or during the operation of a snowmobile. Adults should reinforce this message by setting a good example.
Snowmobilers should wear well-insulated protective clothing, including goggles, waterproof snowmobile suits, gloves and rubber-bottomed boots. All drivers and passengers should wear helmets approved by Snell or other standards organizations for use while operating motorized vehicles, such as motorcycles and snowmobiles. Especially on hilly terrain, snowmobiles should carry bright-coloured antennae flags mounted on rods that are 1.2 m to 2.4 m in length and located on the back of the snowmobile. Operators should carry a first aid kit; an emergency tool kit containing spark plugs, drive and fan belts and an extra key; a survival kit that includes flares; and, if practical, a cellular phone. Snowmobilers should travel in groups of two or more and only on designated, marked trails away from roads, waterways, railroads and pedestrian traffic. Snowmobilers should check the weather forecast before going out and should become familiar with the signs of hypothermia and regularly check for frostbite.
Snowmobilers should avoid snowmobiling on ice if they are uncertain about its thickness or condition. The condition of trails should also be determined and, where appropriate, avalanche danger ascertained.
Snowmobilers should not carry more than one passenger. Headlights and tail lights should be on at all times to improve the visibility of the snowmobile to other vehicle operators.
The use of a saucer, tube, tire, sled or skis to pull someone behind a snowmobile is not recommended. If the need should arise to tow a person, using a sled or cutter attached to the snowmobile by a rigid bar connection reduces the risk of injury. The operator should travel at a slow speed over level terrain away from trees, rocks and other vehicles. In addition, a spotter should be used to watch the individual(s) being towed.
Snowmobiles must be well maintained. Persons should take appropriate precautions when fueling snowmobiles to avoid burns and when loading snowmobiles on and off trailers to prevent strains and crush injuries.
Recommendations for manufacturers include the following:
Snowmobile manufacturers should incorporate mechanical enhancements, such as seating and handlebar designs, to improve rider comfort and safety, as well as to reduce hand-arm vibration to minimize white finger syndrome and numbness. Manufacturers should also attenuate the sound levels generated by snowmobiles, improve the headlight luminance and add a rear-view mirror and a global positioning system device (overhead satellites to provide exact current latitudes and longitudes) to all snowmobiles. Manufacturers are urged to improve snowmobile braking, steering and stability. Emission standards for snowmobiles should be improved.
Helmet designs need to be improved to minimize visor fogging and improve hearing protection. Safety standards for snowmobile helmets should be developed and snowmobile helmets formally certified. Helmet manufacturers should consider adding features such as built-in radio channels for communication and weather monitoring.
INJURY PREVENTION COMMITTEE
Members: Bich-Hong Nguyen MD; Richard Stanwick MD; Lynne Warda MD (chair); Charmaine van Schaik MD; Diane Sacks MD (board representative); John Philpott MD
Consultant: Milton Tenenbein MD
Liaisons: Gail Salminen, Health Canada, Product Safety Branch; Amy Zierler, Safe Kids Canada, The Hospital for Sick Children
Principal Author: Richard Stanwick MD
- Canadian Institute for Health Information. Snowmobiling is the leading cause of severe injuries due to winter sports and recreational activities, reports Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI). Ottawa: CIHI, 2003. secure.cihi.ca/cihiweb/dispPage.jsp?cw_page=media_15jan2003_e (Version current at September 30, 2004).
- Injuries associated with use of snowmobiles – New Hampshire, 1989-92. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 1995;44:1-3.
- Injuries and deaths associated with use of snowmobiles – Maine, 1991-96. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 1997;46:1-4.
- Rice MR, Alvanos L, Kenney B. Snowmobile injuries and deaths in children: A review of national injury data and state legislation. Pediatrics 2000;105:615-9.
- Beilman GJ, Brasel KJ, Dittrich K, Seatter S, Jacobs DM, Croston JK. Risk factors and patterns of injury in snowmobile crashes. Wilderness Environ Med 1999;10:226-32.
- Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting and Prevention Program. Injuries associated with snowmobiles. Ottawa: Health Canada, Population and Public Health Branch, 1999.
- Statistics Canada. Causes of death – Shelf Tables. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2001. Version current at September 30, 2004.
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- Rowe B, Milner R, Johnson C, Bota G. Snowmobile-related deaths in Ontario: A 5-year review. CMAJ 1992;146:147-52.
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- Nissen ER, Melchert PJ, Lewis EJ. A case of bullous frostbite following recreational snowmobiling. Cutis 1999;63:21-3.
- Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting and Prevention Program. Injuries associated with snowmobile sleds. Ottawa: Health Canada, Population and Public Health Branch, 1999.
- Bess FH, Poynor RE. Snowmobile engine noise and hearing. Arch Otolaryngol 1972;95:164-8.
- Anttonen H, Virokannas H. Hand-arm vibration in snowmobile drivers. Arctic Med Res 1994;53(Suppl 3):19-23.
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- Rowe B, Milner R, Johnson C, Bota G. The association of alcohol and night driving with fatal snowmobile trauma: A case-control study. Ann Emerg Med 1994;24:842-8.
- American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention and Committee on Adolescence. The teenage driver. Pediatrics 1996;98:987-90.
Disclaimer: The recommendations in this position statement do not indicate an exclusive course of treatment or procedure to be followed. Variations, taking into account individual circumstances, may be appropriate. Internet addresses are current at time of publication.