Let 2013 be a year of safer rides, less pain

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Dawn Newell of Yarmouth, the 45-year-old mother of a 16-year-old boy, is the first snowmobile fatality of this winter season.

Early Sunday evening during a light snow, Newell was snowmobiling on Rangeley Lake with her son, who was riding a separate snowmobile, when she crashed through thin ice.

Her son was riding behind her and, as his machine also started to break through the ice, he jumped off and was able to get to shore and call for help. Then, he waited through a long night as wardens searched for his mother, and by mid-morning Monday the reality that she was dead had set in as wardens released her name and announced details of efforts made to recover Newell’s body.

If history is any indication, although Newell is the first fatality of the season, she won’t be the last.

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In fact, late Monday, the Warden Service hinted — but would not confirm — that three snowmobilers missing from Carrabassett Valley Sunday night had also gone into Rangeley Lake and died. Wardens intend to search the lake for them Tuesday morning.

Maine’s snowmobile season is now in full swing, helped tremendously by last week’s snowstorm, and snowmobilers are particularly eager to get out there because last winter’s snow season was so dry. But, there is always time for caution, to ensure you have the right safety equipment, know how to operate your machine, know where you’re going and what the trail conditions are, and tell someone your route.

Late in the week, Verna Holman of the Rangeley Lakes Chamber of Commerce told the Sun Journal that local trails were groomed and “it’s been very busy in town.” However, Holman had been warning people to stay off local lakes, which do not yet have thick ice.

Snowstorms on Thursday and again Saturday will delay lake freezing, Holman said, making it even more important for people to be aware of open water across the region.

For snowmobilers (from away and not), there’s no better resource on trail conditions than local snowmobile clubs — like the Rangeley Lakes Snowmobile Club — where members are happy to steer visitors to safe routes and good sledding. So check before you ride.

Last January, after three snowmobilers died in separate accidents over a single weekend, Warden Maj. Greg Sanborn urged snowmobilers to use good judgment and common sense, “never drive beyond the capabilities of the operator or machine, and never drink and drive.”

Good advice.

This, after 49-year-old Matthew Divello of Mariaville crashed through the ice on Graham Lake and died.

And 61-year-old Odias Bachelder of Township was killed when his snowmobile left the trail and he was ejected from his sled.

And, in Lee, 56-year-old Mark Roux was killed when he crashed into woods near Big Green Pond shore.

That same weekend, four other accidents resulted in injuries.

The following month, a New York City snowmobiler crashed after speeding over a 3-foot snowbank in Windham as his friend filmed the stunt. Instead of generating a YouTube video, the 67-year-old Carlo Trovato — an inexperienced snowmobiler — suffered a head injury after he hit something buried under the snow and flew 20- to 25-feet through the air.

In March, 46-year-old Bonnie Sancomb of Massachusetts was traveling in a group of six riders when her snowmobile left the trail and crashed into the woods. Her companions didn’t realize she was no longer with the group until about a half-hour later, and they returned to find her sled on top of her with the studded track still running, chewing through her clothes and cutting up her torso.

There is no question that the snowmobilers who died last winter, and the dozens more who were injured, never set out to be reckless. No one does.

But, there are about 100,000 snowmobilers traveling 140,000 groomed snowmobile trails and countless avenues across lakes, streams and open fields in Maine, which is a lot of ground for havoc. And, as snowmobiles are increasingly designed for speed, the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association has acknowledged that speed is a contributing factor in nearly all fatal snowmobile accidents as a driver’s vision may become impaired and the time a driver has to make critical decisions diminishes at high speed.

Statistically speaking, according to the Centers for Disease Control, most fatal snowmobile accidents are also more likely to happen at night and when the driver has been drinking.

The Maine Warden Service makes snowmobile inspections and driving enforcement a priority during the winter and, while the number of fatal accidents fluctuates from year to year based on a number of variables (including trail and weather conditions), the possibility that any single snowmobile trip can end in a fatality is very real.

Such as it was for Dawn Newell, and the likelihood for three others on Sunday.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

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