Police have some new technology at their disposal to help them in their efforts to curb unsafe snowmobiling this season.
Officials with the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC) and the Ministry of Transportation gathered Monday at OPP General Headquarters in Orillia to launch Snowmobile Safety Week.
They issued both a plea and a warning. The plea: Drive safely. The warning: Eyes in the sky are watching.
The OPP will use its “unmanned aerial systems,” including drones, to help with investigations and to spot unsafe snowmobiling. The force’s helicopters will also be used to monitor the trails, equipped with relatively new camera systems to help officers detect speeding and other dangerous activity.
So far this season, six snowmobilers have died.
“A number of snowmobilers continue to take unnecessary risks,” said OPP Insp. Tina Maier. “For some, those risks cost them their lives.”
Fourteen snowmobilers died in Ontario during the 2017-18 snowmobiling season. While that is a sharp decrease from 2016-17, when there were 27 fatalities, it’s still unacceptable, Maier said.
“We hope that there won’t be any more of these senseless deaths this season,” she said, but added there likely will be, based on experience from previous years. “The only thing we cannot predict from one year to the next is how many (will be killed).”
The OFSC is doing what it can to educate snowmobilers about safety, said its executive director, Ryan Eickmeier, but he added the new tools being used by police “should serve as a key, critical deterrent” to dangerous driving.
The OFSC has a campaign called Go Safe, which provides safety tips and other information to snowmobilers.
The Ministry of Transportation is also trying to encourage safer snowmobiling, said Kinga Surma, parliamentary assistant to the minister. She noted the ministry will soon offer snowmobile safety training online.
“Training can only go so far,” she said. “Ultimately, it comes down to good decisions.”
That includes staying off the ice — something the OPP encourages at any time of the season.
“We’ve had some brutal cold over the last few days, but still, no ice is safe ice,” said Sgt. Kerry Schmidt.
Riders are urged to check the status of trails before venturing out. A map showing trail conditions across the province can be found at ofsc.on.ca.
Eickmeier stressed the importance of staying off trails that are marked as “unavailable.” Not only does it mean the trails aren’t safe for snowmobiling; OFSC volunteers might be on the trails, getting them ready, and anyone snowmobiling on those trails at that time puts the volunteers in danger.
Mandatory alcohol screening laws that came into effect in December apply to snowmobilers, too. They can be asked to provide a breath sample at random, regardless of whether police have reason to believe the drivers have been drinking.
By the numbers
Top five OPP detachment areas where snowmobiling fatalities have occurred:
Almaguin Highlands (10)
Haliburton Highlands (nine)
Sault Ste. Marie (nine)
Top five contributing factors:
Impaired by alcohol
Driving too fast for conditions
When and where fatalities occur:
33 per cent happen in February
30 per cent occur on a Saturday
37 per cent happen on a frozen lake or river
Source: Ontario Provincial Police