Snowmobile trails painted with blood
The snowmobiling industry hopes that you won't read this article
Snowmobilers who read this might conclude that I am trying to hurt snowmobiling. Wrong; I seek to save it from myopic manufacturers who cater to overly aggressive drivers that annoy and scare the hell out of the rest of us. The snowmobiling industry is in the process of slitting its throat. Figurative and literal blood has been flowing for years, but they are too blind to see it.
“This is a family sport, but there are people out there who are killing themselves and our reputations with the way they drive. The real snowmobilers are fed up with the guys and gals who are making the trouble.”
— Bill Schumann, President, Illinois Association of Snowmobile Clubs
After years working as an ER doctor in Michigan, I concluded that the snowmobiling industry—from manufacturers to magazine editors—does not take safety seriously enough. My ringside seat witnessing the aftermath of snowmobile accidents provided a unique vantage point to view the carnage and draw conclusions from it.
As someone who also is working to develop the next generation of tests for neuropsychologists performing cognitive assessments, I think that industry leaders are either unconscionably remiss, valuing money more than human lives, or—in more shirtsleeve English—they're stupid, ignorant, impossibly shortsighted, or bereft of imagination when it comes to safety. A simple, low-cost, and obvious (to me) device could virtually eliminate snowmobile accidents, especially fatal ones, and help keep trails smoother. That device could be easily integrated into new snowmobiles and retrofitted onto existing ones as a condition of trail use registration.
The intellectual myopia of the snowmobile industry keeps them from seeing that a greater focus on safety could boost profits. Instead of responsibly addressing safety, manufacturers give it short shrift and exacerbate the problem by stuffing more horsepower into their sleds each year.
I am not anti-snowmobiling. Although I grew up in intermittent poverty so severe that I sometimes starved and developed diseases stemming from nutritional deficiencies, I was instantly captivated by snowmobiles the second I saw one buzzing down the road in front of my home in the mid-1960s. From then on, my older brother and I would excitedly run to the window to watch when we heard them approach, which flooded our veins with indescribable pleasure. That rapture persisted, so when I bought my first snowmobile after medical school, just thinking of riding it seemed too good to be true. I eagerly awaited the first snowfall each year like a kid dreaming of Christmas, and hearing “winter storm warning” put me in seventh heaven. As the last snow of the season melted in spring, I almost felt as if I'd lost an old friend.
There is no right to irresponsibly endanger others
The right to drive as fast as you want does not exist, period. That desire is less important than the right of others to not be injured, disfigured, or killed by your excessive speed. Snowmobilers who lack common sense and violate the Golden Rule ethic of reciprocity usually injure themselves only, but speed freaks injure many innocent people, too. I've had so many near-misses on trails that I knew it was just a matter of time until I was hit by some “no fear” snowmobiler entering a blind corner at an insanely high speed, such as 70 mph. I always travel slowly and keep to my side of the trail, but speeders oblivious to the danger they pose to themselves and others can turn careful drivers into hamburger in a split-second.
Commenting on the death of a snowmobiler killed by excessive speed, one person said “many times I've had to steer into the woods coming around a corner to get out of the way of someone out of control because they were going too fast.” Responding to that, another added, “That has happened to us several times as well. In fact, my wife has somewhat soured on her snowmobiling enthusiasm because of people on the trail that can't seem to apply common sense and courtesy with any regularity.”
Others suggested that the snowmobiler wasn't speeding even though the news report stated he “was traveling uphill and crested a hill at a high rate of speed, losing control on a corner and striking a tree stump. Worrall and his snow machine went airborne and crashed into several trees, resulting in his fatal injuries.” With some snowmobilers thinking that speed was not excessive, there is an urgent need for the device I invented that would prevent almost all fatalities and most injuries. To encourage snowmobile manufacturers to adopt this critically needed technology, I offer it at no cost; see notes.
If snowmobile magazine editors were as concerned about safety as they profess to be, instead of featuring airborne (or otherwise too fast) snowmobiles on their covers or page after page in issue after issue, they would show what a dead little girl looks like after a snowmobile pulverizes her body. Unless you're an ER doc, nurse, or paramedic, you likely can't even imagine the gruesome aftermath of snowmobiling injuries. Automobile drivers are much more protected, with better protective shells, longer crumple zones, seat belts, airbags, and extensive crash testing and computer analysis to enhance safety. On snowmobiles, it's another story: the protection is trivial, so collisions that auto drivers could walk away from without a scratch can at the same speed on snowmobiles result in horrific or fatal injuries.
To illustrate how Ski-doo's manufacturer slid from sanity to insanity, their 2013 catalog shows an airborne snowmobile traveling at what appears to be a high rate of speed sideways:
Could it get any nuttier? Yes. Its accompanying text drools about how that snowmobile “is for those who see snowmobiling as the ultimate extreme sport. Extreme conditions, extreme terrain, extreme moves and extreme challenges. That’s why we built it to know no limits. Whether you’re throwing whips, landing big airs or carving sick lines …”
Sick lines, indeed. And that crazy talk about how they build it “to know no limits”—how about the laws of physics and the breaking point of the human body? Extreme snowmobiling results in extreme injuries.
Sure, a fine-print disclaimer states, “Performed by a highly skilled rider. Do not attempt if beyond your riding capability.” Sorry, Ski-doo, but such irresponsible driving is beyond the safe limits of any driver; it is the snowmobiling equivalent of Russian roulette: play with fire long enough and you're bound to get burned. Life is too precious for any life to be cut short.
As an ER doctor, I've seen macho men crying their eyes out an hour after they were so certain they could do anything and get away with it. I've also seen children too dead to cry—and you wonder why I'm livid about manufacturers who give irresponsible people the nooses they need to hang themselves and others?
Child pornography is outlawed because it fuels the insanity of some people. Similarly, pictures of recklessly irresponsible behavior, such as the above picture, plant a dangerous idea: that this is fun, and that buying that snowmobile is the key to having that fun. The speed freaks who scared the bejesus out of me by blazing by inches away don't read or heed fine print. Give them more horsepower than they can safely use, and they will endanger themselves and others.
Such people are too common for leaders in this industry to continue burying their heads in the sand—or snow. Leaders should lead, not follow. In this case, industry leaders are being led by me and others who are exasperated by how they trivialize safety, deeming it less important than profits and their arrogant need to think they have all the bright ideas. Dream on, fools.
If gun and archery companies were as irresponsible as snowmobile manufacturers and magazines, they would include pictures of shooting apples on heads:
And kids would do it. And die.
(BODY-)BREAKING NEWS: “Snowmobile rider Caleb Moore has had a "secondary complication involving his brain" after a crash at the Winter X Games led to bleeding around his heart.” A wise commenter observed that flippin' and flyin' snowmobiles “makes about as much sense as mowin' the lawn upside down in a helicopter. Just NOT what they're for,” and another quipped, “A Darwin by any other name …” (alluding to a pop culture adaptation of Charles Darwin's survival of the fittest in which unwise people do stupid things that makes them more likely to die prematurely, thus taking themselves out of the gene pool). “In an interview before the race, Moore told the New York Times that he estimated he'd had 10 concussions.”
Caleb's “brother, Colten Moore, also was injured during the event and was admitted overnight at Aspen Valley Hospital for treatment of a pelvis separation … Another rider, Daniel Bodin, was treated for a left wrist injury after crashing Thursday night.” Bodin “suffered a broken neck in a snowmobile crash last year and was required to wear a halo for three months.”
Article based on materials provided by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Significant head, neck injury risk associated with extreme sports
UPDATE: Caleb Moore died. Here is the crash that killed him:
This video shows other views of the above crash, including the snowmobile striking a 13-year-old spectator:
In a bizarre twist, Jackson Strong is “auctioning off his 2012 Polaris IQ 600R that he rode in competition at this year's X Games.”
Almost everyone is saddened by what happened to Caleb Moore, but emotions exist to modify behavior. The adaptive value of emotions is lost if tragic accidents don't mitigate risk. Smart people learn from obvious lessons. With a million other ways to have fun and demonstrate prowess, and no need to engage in extreme snowmobiling or other extreme sports, the logical and wise choice would be to not engage in them. We all have 24 hours per day and not enough years to do everything we want to do; if I lived to be 500 years old, I could never do even 1% of what I want to do. Considering that, it makes no sense to participate in extreme sports. Are the cheap thrills they offer worth the lives of the ones killed and injured by participating in them? I don't think so. There will never be another Caleb Moore, nor will there ever be another Sarah Burke, a Winter X Games gold medalist who “fell onto her head, […] went into cardiac arrest, [sustained …] "irreversible damage to her brain," and succumbed to her injuries.”
People engage in such high-risk activities to stand out and increase their self-esteem, but like professional sports such as baseball, football, basketball, and hockey, these activities never help others or improve the world. Is the world a better place if Team A wins and Team B loses? Or Team B wins and Team A loses? It doesn't matter; it never matters! The world is beset with myriad unsolved problems. Want to truly stand out? Want a valid reason for feeling better about yourself? Do something useful and solve a problem or help someone; don't think you're hot stuff because you drive fast or are willing to risk your life.
Snowmobile safety is not a political issue. Although I now agree with liberals on some issues, even in my most conservative days I felt just as strongly about snowmobile safety. Freedom is paramount, but Oliver Wendell Holmes capsulized its common-sense limits by saying “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins.” Applying that metaphor to snowmobiling, one's right to drive fast ends when it potentially impacts the safety of others.
I also think it should apply to comfort, too. Most modern snowmobiles have enough power so a momentary blip of the throttle can spin its track, tearing up the trail, creating bumps that make riding much less pleasurable and even less safe (I've seen healthy young adults with spinal fractures resulting from hitting bumps, many of which are almost invisible on gray days with poor contrast). Potentially thousands of riders might traverse a bump that gave one rider a moment of pleasure creating it. Is it worth it? Anyone who cares about others would say “no,” even “hell no!”
I've spoken directly with manufacturers and found them to be as receptive to discussing safety as Casey Anthony was eager to discuss her guilt. I doubt any of those manufacturers have seen the liquefied brain soup inside the helmets of customers traveling too fast, not all of whom were drinking booze (the usual excuse manufacturers use to dodge responsibility), or seen kids turned into pediatric Jell-O, with missing or shredded body parts that made them look as if they were a rag doll that went through a meat grinder with Dracula after a feast on his Thanksgiving Day.
So here is a message to executives at Ski-doo, Polaris, Yamaha, and Arctic Cat: wake up and grow up. Stop pointing the finger of blame solely at irresponsible and sometimes drunk riders. You enable them as much as unprincipled doctors who give junkies drugs they crave but don't need. You fuel the addiction for speed by giving “no fear” drivers the overpowered tools they need to kill themselves and others. With my aforementioned innovation (which you should have invented decades ago), you could give fools the freedom to be foolish without imperiling others and shredding trails. Oh, one more thing: if you were as innovative as you claim to be, you could think of a way to minimize or eliminate the need for trail grooming yet keep trails much smoother than ever before. Stumped? Ask me.
Instead of leading as they should, snowmobile industry leaders buried their heads in the sand. They will continue to turn a blind eye to these problems until this message from an exasperated ER doctor gets through to them, or until a lawyer brings a class action lawsuit that finally gets their attention. I've seen similar unfathomable stupidity on the part of ATV manufacturers (most of whom also manufacture snowmobiles) who overlook an easy, low-cost way to prevent one of the most common fatal injuries associated with ATV use. The alarming injury rates should—but don't—inspire manufacturers to put their thinking caps on.
The yearly snowmobile death toll proves that too many snowmobilers can't safely handle all that horsepower, so giving them more is as irresponsible as giving a gun to a depressed person because of their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. As the body count rises, snowmobile leaders feign an “Oh my God, I had no idea!” astonishment that snowmobiles have many times the power they need for safe trail riding at sane speeds. Riders in the western U.S. might claim they need more horsepower for deep snow, but the 1968 Ski-doo Alpine used its twin tracks, not its comparatively lilliputian 18½ horsepower engine, to float on snow deep enough to bury a house.
As a doctor, I understand why some people get thrills from speed, but with a bit of neuroscience knowledge and better engineering, one could have even more pleasure at safe speeds. Oblivious to these facts, snowmobile manufacturers fuel the problem with more horsepower, fearing that comparatively slow or controlled snowmobiles would slow sales, not realizing how safer, more comfortable sleds and trails would draw in even more customers.
David B. Wexler, Ph.D. said that driving fast is one of the high-risk behaviors that depressed men engage in. Depressed people self-medicate not only by speeding, but also by using alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, or other mind-altering drugs. I frequently saw such patients in the ER requesting drugs they intuitively knew would make them feel better temporarily, but those Band-Aid cover-ups are not good ways to treat depression. In fact, they can make the problem worse. Addressing the root cause is imperative, yet many depressed people do not seek professional help. Thus, friends, family members, and others need to consider depression as a possible cause of high-risk activities and self-medication, and encourage affected individuals to see a physician or, preferably, a psychologist. The latter know much more psychology than virtually all physicians who don't specialize in psychiatry.
One of my friends, now deceased, was a snowmobile dealer (one of the first ones, in fact) with clever ideas for improving snowmobiles. He was related to the head of R&D for one of the Big Four snowmobile manufacturers, but he said that his relative refused to even listen to any of his ideas. That arrogant close-mindedness is not just ethically execrable, it is sheer insanity from a business standpoint and borders on criminal negligence regarding their moral obligation to safeguard customers. However, manufacturers think they've done enough when they give lip service to safety. They keep blaming others and hope none of us are bright enough to notice what they aren't doing.
Another friend was a member of Al Gore's staff when he was Vice President. Her job mandated that she accompany him everywhere, so she went to the White House and attended meetings with him and President Clinton. During one meeting, Clinton was yukking it up so much that Gore lost his patience, screaming at him to “Get with the %*@%#&^ program!”
I have a similar message for snowmobile industry leaders: Get with the %*@%#&^ program! Stop patting yourselves on your backs for the baby steps you've made to foster safety, and show us what intelligent, creative, and responsible leaders can do when they are committed to safety innovation. Make this the last year that snowmobile trails will be painted with blood. If you cannot rise to the challenge, do the world a favor and go out of business. The vacuum left by your departure will draw in new manufacturers with new ideas.
I love diversity, from diversity of ideas to diversity of appearance. That's one reason I fell in love with snowmobiling in the 1960s. Now it is difficult to identify snowmobiles from different manufacturers; without their logos or colors, they look amazingly—and disgustingly—similar, with the Big Four executives following the same stupid recipes. They brag about their innovation, but what they do best is copy other dumbbells with expertise in repelling customers and killing the sport. They're so out of touch with reality they can't see obvious problems and obvious solutions to them.
Dwindling sales figures and snowmobile usage proves they are killing snowmobiling. I live in what once was a prime snowmobiling area, with snowmobiles buzzing by several times per hour. Now I hear one or two snowmobiles per month. Most snowmobile owners are not riding them as often as their counterparts did decades ago—which is especially odd considering how snowmobiles are supposedly much better than before. They are certainly much more reliable (thus overcoming the hassle of frequent repairs) and reportedly better in every way. So why aren't people using them more often? Fear of the speed freaks is one factor, but there's another one that snowmobile manufacturers evidently haven't figured out yet. It's called being clueless. It's too bad their big heads aren't filled with commensurate brainpower.
In the decades that snowmobiling still excited me, I eagerly awaited to see the innovations released each year. By mentally comparing my folder of snowmobile inventions and thinking of others that must surely exist in the homes of millions of snowmobilers, I was routinely disappointed by what I didn't see. I primarily saw minor tweaks and a perennial overemphasis on ever more horsepower and speed, lauded by magazine editors and writers who evidently don't know what they're missing. By seeing their pictures and reading their words, they clearly glorify speed and tacitly suggest that the path to fun is paved with horsepower. By glossing over the eyeballs and other body parts rolling down trails, they give a deceptive image of snowmobiling safety, except for a recent issue of one magazine that was filled with a depressing number of snowmobile injury obituaries yet no clarion call for safety. If that wouldn't make them wake up, what will? Will we ever see a Silent Spring of Snowmobiling?
Snowmobile magazine editors do many things commendably well, yet every one I've seen doesn't remedy obvious omissions, such as complaining about throttle thumb fatigue yet not measuring and routinely reporting throttle force. Or they use nebulous terms to describe ride quality, such as soft, smooth, comfortable, or plush. So what is better? Smooth or comfortable? Soft or plush? I graduated in the top 1% of my class in medical school, yet I could never read those subjective terms and know what is best. Or editors may try to pull the wool over our eyes by quantitating a subjective assessment, such as ride quality, instead of measuring it.
To give them a way to present data objectively (not subjectively), in the 1990s I created a snowmobile histographic accelerometer that quantitated the differences in snowmobile (or other vehicle) ride quality, permitting the production of graphs that clearly indicated how various machines respond to bumps of diverse size. Only one snowmobile magazine bought my device, but never published data generated by it. I've since developed considerably more advanced ride quality analyzers, but I refuse to waste my time begging editors to use them.
I am not the only subscriber who thinks they intentionally pull punches and blur distinctions to not anger the Big Four that gives them advertising dollars and free snowmobiles to use. Considering snowmobile prices, one would need to be penny-wise and pound-foolish to not pay much more for Consumer Reports-like snowmobile magazines in which editors could do more objective testing and freer reporting.
If snowmobile magazine editors wrote a personal ad for Casey Anthony, they would say she's gorgeous, in great shape, very clever, great at telling stories, knows how to fix problems with duct tape, and has a killer smile.
I waited decades to see a head-to-head comparison of utility machines (hint to snowmobile editors: the most interesting articles in Car and Driver focus on unusual vehicles), but that article turned out to be yet another big disappointment. They didn't test one manufacturer's obvious wide-track machine, nor did they measure pulling force, which is as vital for utility machines as muzzle energy is for elephant rifles. The problem of variable snow conditions can be mitigated by running multiple tests on a variety of conditions, but they're evidently in too much of a hurry to complete that article so they can rush to the next half-assed one. Oh, but if I cared about power, I could find reams and reams of data with elaborate, precise reporting down to the nearest one-tenth of a horsepower. As if it mattered!
All that horsepower gives nightmares to many folks and thrills to others who don't realize that it can rarely or never be safely used. One might think that a frozen lake would be one exception, but Murphy's Law has ended the lives of many people who encountered unforeseen dangers. A snowmobiler racing down a local lake struck a pressure ridge, which killed him. The last seconds of his life were filled with sheer terror and unimaginable pain as his body was ripped apart in places and crushed in others.
Manufacturers and editors have convenient excuses for why snowmobile sales have plummeted: high snowmobile and gasoline prices, the poor economy, and low-snow years. However, people weren't exactly rolling in the money in the late 1960s and early 1970s when sales peaked. Decades later, when the population was larger and people had more disposable income, sales were a fraction of what they once were even when snow and cheap gas were plentiful.
So what is really responsible for the decline in sales? Consumers aren't stupid. Disappoint them long enough and they'll wise up, spending their money elsewhere. I'm now into tractors and am selling one of my snowmobiles (and my Sea-doo and a shed) to raise money to help a deported person reenter the United States. I purchased several snowmobiles years ago, including one I bought for neighbors to use, but I have zero interest in buying another. If snowmobile manufacturers and magazines can alienate me, it isn't surprising that they succeeded in antagonizing countless other potential customers. They've gotten in bed with the speed freaks and have figuratively given the finger to those of us who dearly care about safety, so I am returning the favor, voting with my wallet, and delivering long-overdue but eminently justified criticism.
A wise businessman said that he genuinely appreciated criticism of his products because it gave him a chance to improve. He viewed them as his best customers; the worst were the ones too apathetic to complain.
It takes maturity to value people complaining about a product or service. Does the snowmobile industry have that maturity? We'll see, but I am not holding my breath. In interfacing directly with manufacturers, the ones at Arctic Cat struck me as being very nice, while the others infuriated me with their arrogant close-mindedness, convinced they had all the answers. Wrong, Einsteins.
Metacognition is thinking about thinking, so metaignorance is ignorance about ignorance. Snowmobile manufacturers aren't just ignorant; they are metaignorant: they don't know they don't know.
The Dunning–Kruger effect manifests as the metacognitive inability to recognize one's mistakes, which gives unskilled people illusory superiority while the highly skilled underrate their abilities, producing illusory inferiority. Thus the least competent tend to be the most confident. Incompetent people overestimate their ability yet fail to recognize genuine ability in others, thus explaining why snowmobile manufacturers think so highly of themselves and so little of others with better ideas. They need to read Dunning and Kruger's paper (Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments), but their metacognitive defects blind them to the need.
Manufacturers get away with neglecting safety because people tend to possess an “it won't happen to me” mentality that provides a false sense of security. They often forget that a sane speed includes a margin of safety for unseen hazards and unexpected events, such as a mechanical failure or a deer jumping across a trail. While test driving a new car, professional formula driver Ken Gushi almost struck a wild deer who ran into his path. His razor-thin miss demonstrates how even professional drivers need a larger margin of safety. Had the deer been a bit slower, or stopped and stared as many deer do, he would have plowed into it.
Snowmobile drivers also fail to consider that kinetic energy (and hence the potential for injury) rises exponentially with increasing speed, not linearly. All of this points to a need to make slow-speed snowmobiling more fun. That's a no-brainer for anyone who understands neuroscience and engineering. I hope the snowmobile industry is wise enough to seek a long overdue second opinion, but I forecast that they'll just keep congratulating themselves as the death toll continues to rise.
Based on what they aren't doing, it is easy to assume that snowmobile manufacturers do not hire doctors or scientists. A smart and innovative physician-scientist would make snowmobile CEOs slap their foreheads and exclaim, “That's a great way to improve snowmobiling! Why didn't we think of that?”
Why? Because they are not physician-scientists, and not as innovative as they think they are. I know what genuine innovation is. My primary job is inventing for some of the richest and smartest people in the world. They're focused on inventions that transform technology, but they want really big ideas. From what I've seen so far, anything related to snowmobiling is too trivial for them to bother with. However, the need for snowmobile, ATV, and boating innovation is clear, and I have inventions to make each activity safer and more fun. What I don't have is the time or the need to beg manufacturers to evaluate and implement my ideas. The body count will continue to rise until manufacturers can swallow their pride long enough to contact me.
Apart from the oft-neglected safety aspect, snowmobiling is primarily about fun. Relatively few snowmobiles are used for purely utilitarian purposes; for the rest, the raison d'etre is fun, period. Snowmobile manufacturers gravitate toward speed as a means of amplifying fun because they aren't sufficiently knowledgeable to optimize fun otherwise. They are as misguided as women who think that marked breast augmentation will make them better wives.
Smart and innovative physician-scientists know how to improve the recipe for snowmobiling fun. Unlike speed, the secret ingredients are healthy, to use a food analogy, and make people hungry for more—unlike snowmobiling, that doesn't tempt most potential customers into even taking a sample bite. Why should they? Too many folks have heard of the lingering bitter aftertaste that snowmobiles can bring.
I once thought the sun rose and set in Valcourt, Quebec (where Ski-doos are made), but their neglect of fun and emphasis on speed alienated my affection for a sport whose leaders don't have enough education, but they have enough cash to give them heads big enough to dismiss others who know more than they do about safety and fun.
Pity them, and pity us, the victims of their close-mindedness.
I will post an update next year to report how industry leaders respond to this challenge. Some snowmobilers reading this article won't be able to read that report card because their blood will be painted on a trail. It's not always the other guy. It could be you, your neighbor, or this child:
Children depend on responsible adults to keep them safe. Kids cannot properly assess risk and implement strategies to mitigate danger, so we must do it for them and for others with the child-like conviction that “it won't happen to me.”
In preparing my upcoming book on overcoming racism and bigotry, I've pondered their roots, one of which is an abominably egocentric valuation of oneself as greater than others. I think snowmobile and ATV manufacturers similarly trivialize the lives of their customers, deeming them less important than their profits and their selfish need to ignore innovations so they can continue to delude themselves into thinking they have all the great ideas. That is the Dunning–Kruger effect in action, generating illusory superiority, not the innovations we need. Thus these manufacturers need to drink more coffee, wake up, and “get with the %*@%#&^ program!” That may be an inconvenient truth, but it is the truth.
UPDATE: I mentioned to a snowmobile dealer why I was not interested in purchasing another snowmobile. I explained the deaths and injuries I'd witnessed as an ER doctor, and told him of the near-misses I had on trails when speeders almost hit me. I inquired if his manufacturer ever discussed the speed problem at dealer meetings; not as far as he knew. After saying that he enjoyed speeding while snowmobiling, he suggested that I might want to buy a snowmobile with less power—perhaps their entry-level model with about 60 horsepower.
He didn't get it! First, I wasn't in the market for any snowmobile. Second, getting one with less power wouldn't slow other riders; I was clearly worried about THEIR speed, not mine!
When I fell in love with snowmobiles, the fastest models had less than 20 horsepower, and no one ever fell asleep from boredom while riding one. A few years later, in the early 1970s, a snowmobile magazine discussed a new model with 50 horsepower—outrageously powerful, they felt, and perhaps too much for anyone but a professional driver (some of whom have been injured or killed by speeding, proving that even they can't safely handle all that power). Some people called that overpowered sled a “widow maker.”
Just as Michael Jackson did not know when to stop with plastic surgery, the snowmobile industry didn't—and doesn't—have enough common sense to know when to stop with horsepower. More isn't better; in this case, it is much worse. When today's relatively Lilliputian snowmobile engines have more power than the “widow makers” of yesteryear, someone isn't tuned into reality—and it isn't the ones in the 1970s who questioned the sanity of fast sleds.
During my teen years, a snowmobile dealer gave me a short test ride on a 28-horsepower snowmobile while he drove it (in those days, two-up sleds were common). We topped out at 55 mph, which was absolutely terrifying as a rider, just inches from the snow. 55 mph is hardly slow in cars traveling on smooth, wide roads.
I can hear the he-men now: “Pezzi afraid of 55 mph? Ha-ha-ha!” Years later, when I drove a modern snowmobile with a suspension better able to “soak up” bumps, I hit one that catapulted me from the seat, onto the trail. Fortunately I wasn't going very fast. Had I been buzzing along at 55, I could have been seriously injured or killed. Not ha-ha-ha.
Many of today's riders want to go much faster than 55 on trails so narrow that one icy spot or bump could launch them into a tree, or into the path of an oncoming snowmobile—perhaps one with a child riding as a passenger.
While ski carbide runners and track studs enhance control, they can dull and lose effectiveness. If skis are airborne, they can't steer, period. The laws of physics haven't changed from the 1960s. I had great fun snowmobiling at 20 mph. Raise that speed to 80, as many current drivers want to go—or faster, and the kinetic energy (KE) of the snowmobile rises 16-fold, since KE = ½ mv2. The potential for injury rises even more than 16-fold, because humans have a certain breaking point, or threshold. Below that, no injury results. As the injury threshold is approached (which can easily be exceeded with old 12-horsepower sleds that topped out at 40 mph), a minor addition of speed can make the difference between no injury and spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair, or worse.
Besides the exponential increase in kinetic energy and the quantal effects of the easily exceeded injury threshold, snowmobilers face another risk: their reaction time doesn't get any quicker when they speed. Reaction time is generally about 200 milliseconds in young, healthy people under controlled laboratory conditions. Put on a helmet, bulky suit and gloves, add in half-frozen hands, a beer or two and perhaps other drugs that depress CNS functioning, and reaction time could rise to a second or more. And you wonder why so many snowmobilers are injured or killed? I don't!
Reaction time is also critically dependent on attention. If the snowmobiler is daydreaming about the hot waitress he just flirted with, it may take him even longer to shift his attention from her beauty to his dangerous situation. Many accidents happen so fast that snowmobilers don't react until after the collision. That's too late.
I've seen grown men crying in the ER, bemoaning their injuries. One kept screaming for people to feel sorry for him, because he was now paralyzed. He broke his back, severed his spinal cord, and won't ever walk again, make love to his wife, or even normally control his bladder or bowel. An hour before, he was full of testosterone, loving speed and horsepower, until it shattered his body and life.
It was too late for him, but it's likely not too late for you. If you want to continue snowmobiling with much less risk of injury, contact manufacturers and pressure them into implementing my invention that would safeguard you while giving speed freaks the freedom to be foolish. And they will.
But don't hold your breath waiting for manufacturers to address the glaring safety issues they're doing their best to avoid. They fear safety discussions because many customers want to live in a dream world in which they can speed all they want and die of old age; accidents always happen to the other guy. This childish thinking does not comport with reality because snowmobiling is inherently dangerous.
The injury and death rates, although alarmingly high, would be much worse if snowmobiles were used as much as cars. A typical snowmobile spends 99+% of the year sitting in a garage or barn, not being used. This infrequent use camouflages the dangers to some extent, but the per-hour risks are so high that even occasional use results in many injuries and deaths.
Snowmobiles usually operate in conditions abounding with hazards such as fallen trees or branches, icy spots, big bumps, deer or other animals on trails, and speeding, reckless snowmobilers—the worst hazard of them all. These risks necessitate a wide margin of safety.
A case in point: A very experienced snowmobile magazine editor, who likely considers himself a superb driver, had seen several deer on trails earlier so he was “being extra careful and cautious” later that day but he still struck and killed a deer, severely damaged the snowmobile, and narrowly escaped serious injury himself. The article describing the accident makes it clear he was driving too fast. Most snowmobilers striking a deer at that speed wouldn't be so lucky; they'd go to their grave, a wheelchair, or at least an ICU followed by years in pain clinics.
The need for a wider margin of safety is obvious when even experts “being extra careful and cautious” can turn a snowmobile loaded with kinetic energy into a deadly weapon. Intelligent and circumspect snowmobilers know this issue demands action, but the irresponsible daredevils often don't think about safety until someone is injured or killed.
How did snowmobile manufacturers respond to this article and enough injuries and deaths that should have compelled them to make safety more of a priority than speed? They made their engines more powerful, thereby exceeding Einstein's definition of insanity.
What will it take to make them wake up? Probably legislation. Our nation is burdened by too much regulation in some areas and not enough in others, such as snowmobiling, where the trails are about as controlled as the Wild West. In all my years snowmobiling, I never saw a law enforcement officer on a trail; I saw one checking for trail stickers near the entrance to a trail. That's it.
I sometimes quip that if you can't have fun on a snowmobile at 30 mph, you need a psychiatrist, not more horsepower. Behind this seemingly facetious comment is some interesting neuroscience that gives people aware of it the ability to amplify fun. Why can I have more fun snowmobiling at 15 mph than many others at 70? Because they're missing something they try to remedy with thrills; speed is just a band-aid on their real problems, most of which I could correct without prescription drugs.
That's a topic for another day, but one that is relevant to everything, not just snowmobiling. I know how to magnify various facets of pleasure, which is the ultimate motivation for most human behavior and the reward we derive from it, but the threshold of fun is not the same in everyone, nor does it stay the same over time in any one person. People who know what they are doing can manipulate their perceived levels of fun and other pleasure, and thereby have a much more satisfying life. Stay tuned for some tips on how to do that.
What snowmobile magazines should do
- Don't show any pictures of speeding, airborne, or otherwise dangerous activity. Monkey see, monkey do.
- Include pictures and articles about family and community activities, as snowmobile magazines did decades ago.
- Encourage snowmobilers to give (safe!) rides to children and even adults who don't have snowmobiles. Snowmobiling can be a lot of fun, but an even greater joy is giving fun to others.
- Encourage using snowmobiles for useful activities, such as hauling a snowblower to clear the driveway of elderly or disabled people, as I've done, or to clear roads or driveways by plowing with snowmobiles equipped with push or pull plows or snowblowers. Push plows are commercially available; I've made pull-type plows and other ways to remove road or driveway snow.
- Refuse to accept advertising for products that increase engine noise or power. Engines are already too loud and powerful. “People are going faster and faster.” (SnowTech magazine, December 2012, page 12, referring to snowmobilers on trails) Some aftermarket exhaust pipes are so loud it gives snowmobiling in general a black eye. In 1996 after fueling my snowmobile at a gas station, I couldn't tell if it was running because of the noise emitted by an idling snowmobile on the other side of the road! It came from the factory with over 160 horsepower—and it needs more? Not only could I hear the obnoxious sound from that and other snowmobiles with obviously aftermarket pipes, I could feel rattling in my chest.
Why is snowmobiling less popular?
Could it be that manufacturers have engineered much of the fun out of the whole snowmobile experience, not just the riding? Yes. Poorly maintained trails, high prices for snowmobiles, accessories, and gas, and Russian roulette-like risks contribute to the plummeting popularity of snowmobiling. But there's more to it than that. Snowmobile manufacturers, grab a cup of coffee, put your feet up, and really ponder what I'm about to say.
Why is a $1000 go-cart much more fun to drive than a $40,000 car? The latter is obviously more refined, but for most people driving nice cars, it just Point A to Point B transportation. It's not fun. At all. If you'd rather snap your fingers and be done with it, it's not fun.
The most enjoyable car I ever drove, by far, was an old stick-shift Datsun very crude by today's standards. No modern auto manufacturer would consider selling anything even remotely similar to it. Instead, we get cars so refined they've somehow refined the fun out of them. That's progress?
Snowmobile manufacturers are making the same big mistake. Cooking over a campfire is vastly more fun than cooking in the nicest kitchen. Sleeping in a cozy mansion isn't as fun as being in a sleeping bag in a tent that's too cold. Ask any man if he'd prefer a woman in jeans and a T-shirt or one in an elegant black dress, a pearl necklace, and not one hair out of place. I rest my case.
More refined isn't necessarily better. In fact, it can be a giant step backward. Smart manufacturers know about disruptive innovation, in which a low-cost and seemingly backward technology can come out of nowhere and shake up an existing market, eventually displacing the previously entrenched products, even the high-end stuff.
I know how to do this with snowmobiling so it is almost dirt-cheap, more fun, and safer, but it will likely be years from now, if ever, if I find the time to sweep away better projects that will help more people. However, I might try squeezing this one in because I'd love to crush the existing snowmobile market, destroying the investments of the idiotic manufacturers who are destroying snowmobiling. It's time to reinvent snowmobiling. Smart snowmobile manufacturers (are there any?) will contact me; others will eventually get steamrolled and go bankrupt. It's their choice.
Designed to speed
Modern snowmobiles are geared for speed and can suffer premature drive belt wear if driven slowly. Compared to old snowmobiles, current sleds often have poor flotation and hence cannot operate in unpacked deep snow without the risk of becoming stuck, such as what happened to me earlier today while traversing an awkward slope in snow about 18 inches deep—digging out took over an hour.
My snowmobile weighs somewhat more than average (610 pounds) but has enormously more track and ski surface area than average, and thus floats better than most snowmobiles, yet still frequently gets stuck at slow speeds. Since even snowmobiles designed for off-trail deep snow use cannot be driven slowly without risk of becoming stuck, manufacturers practically compel faster speeds. Pure stupidity.
The “Polaris Snowmobiles Official YouTube Channel” posted this strange video entitled Introducing the 2014 Polaris Snowmobile Lineup. What's strikingly odd about it is that I didn't see any description of their new models, what's new, and why they're better than competitive offerings. I didn't see any families snowmobiling at safe, sane speeds. Instead, I saw the insanity that's now typical for the snowmobiling industry: daredevils performing dangerous stunts Polaris warned about in fine print I could read only by rewinding, pausing, and using a magnifying glass. Here's a better warning message:
Snowmobile leaders can't figure this out, so I'll spell it out for them: It's not enough to drive safely because others driving dangerously can kill you. And who is giving those irresponsible nuts endless tutorials on speeding and flying through the air? Snowmobile manufacturers and magazines, who show one reckless picture after another. I can't recall the last time any of them showed a family having fun. The tacit message is that you need speed and risky stunts to make snowmobiling fun. Nuts.
The snowmobiling industry gives only brief lip service about safety, and they give the finger to people like me who care about it. Many smart people realize this and shun snowmobiling for themselves and their families. When you're potentially just a split-second and a blind curve away from a “no fear” nut blazing down the trail at 70 mph or more, you'd need to be a real Pollyanna to think nothing bad will ever happen to you—it's always the other guy, right? Their children die, not yours. Dream on.
Snowmobiling can be enormously enjoyable. Manufacturers with an ounce of common sense would depict the safe joys of snowmobiling in their marketing messages. If they were truly serious about safety, they'd never show any reckless driving because that encourages others to emulate it.
- To encourage snowmobile manufacturers to adopt my invention that would prevent almost all fatalities and most injuries, I will give them a license to use it at no cost. Manufacturers may contact me for more information. That invention and others I alluded to are not related to my disruptive innovations for snowmobiling.
- Unrealistic Optimism Prompts Risky Behavior
- Blame 'Faulty' Frontal Lobe Function for Undying Optimism in Face of Reality
- Psychopaths' Brains Wired to Seek Rewards, No Matter the Consequences
Excerpt: “The brains of psychopaths appear to be wired to keep seeking a reward at any cost … Previous research on psychopathy has focused on what these individuals lack—fear, empathy and interpersonal skills. The new research, however, examines what they have in abundance: impulsivity, heightened attraction to rewards and risk taking. … These individuals appear to have such a strong draw to reward—to the carrot—that it overwhelms the sense of risk or concern about the stick.”
Comment: Lack fear? Check. Lack empathy? Check (risking the lives of others on trails manifests their lack of empathy). Impulsivity? Check. Heightened attraction to rewards and risk taking? Check.
Hence, snowmobilers who speed on trails and participants in extreme sports demonstrate behavior with remarkable parallels to psychopathy. They are not necessarily psychopaths, however. Behavior is a continuum, not quantal states (totally nuts OR totally normal, with the latter often being totally boring), but it is safe to say they are more psychopathic (a.k.a., sociopathic) than others. That doesn't bode well for people who encounter them, on the trail or elsewhere in life, because sociopaths don't think they are the problem; someone else always deserves the blame (learn how to spot a sociopath).
Thus by giving people considerably faster snowmobiles than they can safely use, and by depicting risky activities (such as Ski-doo's above ad showing a snowmobile flying sideways, or snowmobile magazines routinely showing airborne snowmobiles), they encourage people with psychopathic tendencies to become more extreme. And they are. By doing that, the snowmobile industry is increasingly repelling people with more common sense.
- “Sociopaths are more spontaneous and intense than other people. They tend to do bizarre, sometimes erratic things that most regular people wouldn't do. They are unbound by normal social contracts. Their behavior often seems irrational or extremely risky. … Sociopaths never answer facts; they always attack the messenger.”
- Fearless Children Show Less Empathy, More Aggression, Research Finds (probably fearless adults, too)
- Lack of Empathy Following Traumatic Brain Injury Associated With Reduced Responsiveness to Anger
- Head Injury Can Blight Survival Up to 13 Years Later
- People Who Have Had Head Injuries Report More Violent Behavior
- A Psychopath Lacks Empathy Just Like a Person With Frontal Head Injury, Study Suggests
- An excerpt from People Who Really Identify With Their Car Drive More Aggressively, Study Finds: “Those who view their car as an extension of themselves have stronger aggressive driving tendencies.” Might this apply to snowmobilers, too?
- Macho Men a Liability On Roads, Study Finds. And snowmobile trails, no doubt.
- Risk-Taking Behavior Rises Until Age 50
- Presence of Peers Heightens Teens' Sensitivity to Rewards of a Risk
Comment: This applies to certain adults, too, including those racing down snowmobile trails and participants in extreme sports who are egged on by the attention they receive. Being in the limelight can be so rewarding to people whose egos thrive on attention they are willing to risk their lives to get it.
- Speed Awareness Courses Have a 'Long Term Impact' On Driving Behavior
- Concerned Families for ATV Safety
- When a mother contacted Yamaha “to notify them of my daughter’s accident and to advise them how dangerous this vehicle was,” she “was met with a very unconcerned cold attitude and almost immediately the blame was shifted to the occupants of the vehicle.” That's exactly what Yamaha did when I discussed safety with them. Operator error unquestionably causes or contributes to many accidents, but most injuries could be prevented if manufacturers added common sense safety innovations.
Imperfect people will always make mistakes and put themselves in danger, but manufacturers should realize that people will be people, and hence imperfect people, so they should safeguard their customers to prevent mistakes or to minimize the consequences of them. That's what smart, responsible companies would do. Stupid, irresponsible companies would do exactly what snowmobile and ATV manufacturers are doing: ignoring problems or shifting blame, not solving problems that result in accidents. Read more stories from families whose children were killed or injured on an ATV.
- An excerpt from All Terrain Vehicles: Gear Up Before Revving Up ATVs: “Rociel was not badly hurt and went for help. Upon her return, she found her unconscious brother being pecked at and his severed ear being eaten by vultures.”
- Adult-Sized ATVs Are Not Safe for Kids, Startling Statistics Show
- ATV-Related Accidents and Children: Pediatric Orthopaedic Surgeons Show Age-Related Patterns of Spine Injury in ATV Injuries based on Age-related Patterns of Spine Injury in Children Involved in All-Terrain Vehicle Accidents
- The American Academy of Pediatrics describes snowmobile and ATV use by children as “the perfect recipe for tragedy.”
- Most Dealers Willing to Discuss Selling an Adult-Sized ATV for Child Use, Despite Danger
- Injuries, Manufacturer Warnings Do Not Deter ATV Use by Children Under Age 16
- ATV-related injuries in children remain large public health problem
- New report warns of chest injuries in children after ATV accidents
- ATV Guidelines Inadequate, Study Finds
- A deputy sheriff commenting on radio about an ATV accident in which the driver was seriously injured: “Unfortunately, the industry keeps building them larger and faster.”
- Olympic star Van Dyken severs spine in [ATV] accident
- List of deaths by motorcycle accident
- Aging Motorcyclists Hit the Road, but at Greater Risk of Injury, Death, Study Finds
- Older Bikers Three Times as Likely to Be Seriously Injured in Crashes as Younger Peers
Comment: As an ER doc, I've seen how incredibly fragile older bodies can be. This article applies to motorcycle riders, but it is equally applicable to snowmobile riders. Smart and ethical snowmobile manufacturers would do everything possible to make snowmobiling as safe as possible for people of all ages, but they are not doing that, obviously.
- One of many examples of how manufacturers overlook obvious safety innovations: A snowmobile safety site said, “At night, the headlights illuminate your path about 200 feet in front of the snowmobile. Be careful not to over ride the headlights.” Yes, but more than a few drivers violate that precaution. Since many customers do dangerous things, whenever feasible manufacturers should implement safeguards. The danger of overriding headlights could be prevented by a simple addition costing about $1.
- Snowmobiling with a parachute? One man thinks 'sport' could take off
- Multiple Riders, Lack of Helmet Use, and Faster ATVs Contribute to Pediatric Injuries, Studies Find
- Surprise: Two Wheels Safer Than Four in Off-Road Riding and Racing, Study Finds
- Injury Report Shows All-Terrain Vehicles Not Child's Play
- Pediatric Hospitalizations for ATV-Related Injuries More Than Double
- Dramatic Increase In Number Of Injuries And Deaths Caused By ATVs
- ATV and Motocross Sports: High Velocity Toys Merit Caution, Experts Say
- Turning Repulsive Feelings Into Desires
Excerpt: “The sudden brain changes help explain how an event, such as taking an addictive drug, could become "wanted" despite a person's knowledge of the negative and unpleasant consequences of the drug.”
Comment: Put your feet up and think about the applicability of this to intentionally risky behavior, which is motivated by the desire for thrills. Your conclusions?
- (Michigan) State removes signs from all snowmobile trails
Comment: Brilliant! Now let's remove the road signs!
- 9 Extreme Athletes Who Suffered Extreme Injuries Doing What They Love
Comment: With so many safe ways to have fun and entertain others, why participate in dangerous activities? Why not choose something that is challenging and fun, but safe?
- Extraordinary Trauma Images
Comment: I've seen ones considerably worse than those.
- Head and Spine Trauma from ATV Accidents Cost $3.24 Billion Annually, Study Finds (Is it that manufacturers can't afford to produce safer vehicles, or are they too penurious to pay inventors who have safety inventions their engineers do not?)
- Snowmobile Crash +90MPH
Comment: Speed kills.
- Man dies after slamming snowmobile into tree
- Survival of the fittest: Evolution continues despite low mortality and fertility rates in modern world
- Zeeland man killed in Wexford County snowmobile crash
Excerpt: “The Holland Sentinel reports that Winn was a paraplegic after a 1992 motorbike crash. His wife called him "fearless" saying "he lived his life to the absolute max."”
Excerpt from The Holland Sentinel: “The Wexford County Sheriff's Department said his snowmobile crashed into a tree at about 4 a.m. … "He liked speed, he loved to go fast."”
Comment: In my most ardent snowmobiling years, when I worked the ER night shift (so nights were my days), I never snowmobiled at night because my right to have fun was less important than the right of others (potentially, hundreds or thousands of them) to enjoy peace and quiet at night. Snowmobilers should give more consideration to how their actions affect others. This snowmobiler killed himself only, but he and other “fearless” drivers like him endanger people by speeding.
The driver appeared to overcorrect and was likely killed because he or she didn't know how to safely recover in that situation. I had a similar experience my first month of driving on snowy roads, but after snowmobiling, I knew exactly what to do without thinking.