have been killed this season; are tougher safety laws needed?
Note: This story was first published on Sunday, April 16. That afternoon,
Fairbanks dentist Robert Gottschalk, 51, became Alaska's 24th snowmachine
fatality of the winter when he drove his machine off the top of
a 40-foot bluff south of Cantwell.
By RICHARD MAUER
Daily News reporter
The first snowmobilers to die this winter were Larry Booth and
Part of a late-night village search party, they were looking for
a pair of ice fishermen on Selawik Lake in the wild country east
of Kotzebue. It was Oct. 27, and the ice was still thin. The fishermen
were found alive, but the would-be rescuers, Booth, 38, and Riley,
42, were not. Searchers spotted their bodies the next day floating
near the hole where their snowmachines broke through the ice.
Walter J. Coty III of Fairbanks was the latest victim.
Last weekend, with the spring sun softening the mountain snow for
thousands gathered near Paxson at the Arctic Man festivities, Coty
went highmarking up a slope in the Hoodoo Mountains. Earlier in
the day, he had dug himself out of a slide, but as he tried to challenge
the mountains again, a second avalanche buried him. Searchers found
his body the next day.
Coty's death pushed the snowmobile toll this winter to 23. That
is the highest in Alaska in a decade, perhaps ever.
Four were Bush residents who fell victim to the weather or the
environment. Two were children, one of them a 17-year-old pedestrian
struck and killed on Pittman Road near Wasilla by a snowmobiler
whose blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit and
whose driver's license had been suspended.
Others drowned, suffocated or suffered fatal injuries in collisions.
Some lost control of their machines, then rolled them and were crushed
by their snowmobiles or were injured when they fell off.
But the deaths are only part of the story. Scores more people have
been injured. They've suffered shattered bones or brutal spine or
brain injuries that can take years to heal - if ever.
A substantial number of the victims have been minors. Complete
injury statistics for this season won't be available for at least
a year, but for most of the decade, an average of 20 percent of
people hurt seriously enough to require hospitalization were children,
according to the Alaska Trauma Registry.
The registry is an official record of hospitalizations maintained
by the state health department, in part to help researchers spot
trends in injuries. A portion of the registry pertaining to snowmobile
accidents was obtained by the Daily News under a research agreement
with the state.
The registry shows that 1,038 Alaskans were hospitalized with injuries
related to snowmobile accidents between 1991 and 1997, the last
year for which complete numbers are available. Of that number, 212
were under age 18, with 42 suffering brain injuries and two damaging
With virtually no snowmobile regulations governing riders on the
vast public lands of Alaska, some state health officials, doctors
and law enforcement officers say, the state needs to do more to
reduce the toll.
"Does Alaska as a community value its citizens enough, its kids
enough, that we're going to use methods to try to reduce not only
fatalities but also the number of individuals who are becoming brain
damaged and paralyzed?" Alaska epidemiologist John Middaugh asked
in a recent interview. "We're failing as a state to do that now."
A GRIM PICTURE
From the villages of Bush Alaska to the side streets of Wasilla
and all the backcountry in between, it's hard to go anywhere during
winter and not encounter the whine of a snowmachine. For recreation,
basic transportation or just as the "second car," snowmobiles have
become an ingrained piece of life for much of Alaska.
But even as snowmachines increase in speed, performance and popularity,
operator training and rules lag behind other snow-country states.
And the number of people killed and maimed in accidents here has
A state-federal study of injury and death rates for the early 1990s,
published in January 1999, paints a grim picture of the situation
in Alaska. Among the findings:
* The snowmobile death rate here was more than seven times higher
than in Wisconsin or Minnesota, the states with the second- and
third-highest rates for the years studied.
* Based on miles driven, traveling by snowmachine in Alaska was
8 1/2 times more deadly than traveling by car or truck.
* The chances of a snowmobiler's being hospitalized because of
injuries from an accident were more than 2 1/2 times greater than
for people using on-road vehicles.
The study also found a strong association between drinking and
snowmobiling accidents. Blood-alcohol levels were not always available,
according to the study. But where they were, researchers found 65
percent of victims were legally intoxicated. Studies elsewhere also
show a correlation between accidents and drinking. Researchers in
Maine found about 41 percent of 37 snowmobilers killed between 1991-96
were driving drunk, according to a 1997 report. And in northern
Sweden, health officials conducted autopsies on 157 snowmobile victims
from 1973 to 1998 and found that alcohol contributed to the accident
in 69 percent of the cases, reported Dr. Mats Ostrom of the University
of Umea Medical School in a soon-to-published manuscript he provided
the Daily News.
Other northern states, along with Scandinavian countries, have
looked at escalating death and injury rates and reacted with speed
limits, mandatory driver training, minimum operator ages and snowmobile
patrols by uniformed officers.
Alaska has not. Only in state and national parks are Alaska snowmobilers
subject to those kinds of rules.
While the state's tough DWI law includes snowmobiles and other
off-road vehicles, troopers acknowledge it is rarely enforced off
The only Alaska snowmobile legislation now under discussion would
require helmets for children age 15 and under. And the bill's sponsor,
Rep. Allen Kemplen, D-Anchorage, concedes it has little chance of
passing this year.
Col. John Glass, director of the Alaska Division of Fish and Wildlife
Protection, said more needs to be done. He would favor more rules
of the trail and patrols.
"I'm a snowmachine driver myself," Glass said. "I'm speaking as
both a consumer and an advocate for public safety. I support any
kind of movement that way."
States that have done this appear to have found some success in
Alaska has about one-third the number of snowmobiles that are registered
in each of the upper Midwest states. While officially Alaska has
23,500 registered snowmachines, the state snowmobile association
estimates another 60,000 are operating illegally without registration.
This year, Minnesota, with the toughest rules in the region, had
10 deaths, down from 32 in 1996 before the laws were changed. Wisconsin
had 38, Michigan 39.
Before it began enforcing a 45 mph speed limit and patrolling
for drunks, New Hampshire, with 50,000 registered snowmobiles, had
10 deaths in 1997. This year, there was one.
'A LIVE HAND GRENADE'
On Saturday, Feb. 5, troopers in Fairbanks were called to D Street
and Trainor Gate Road, where a snowmachine had pulled out in front
of a truck. No one was hurt in the ensuing collision, but the snowmachine
Its driver was 9-year-old Russell Wivoda. The boy would have been
in big trouble if he had been driving a car, but there is no law
against children driving snowmobiles in Alaska. But the snowmobile
couldn't legally be operated on the road by anyone, so troopers
wrote him a $20 ticket.
A month earlier, troopers responding to a car-snowmachine accident
on Scatters Way in Wasilla found an injured 13-year-old boy. He
had been riding on a sled pulled by a snowmachine driven by his
14-year-old friend, who had swerved and crashed the sled into a
car. The 13-year-old was taken to the hospital with serious internal
injuries and broken bones. The 14-year-old was cited for driving
on the road.
Alaska's terrain and environment may be more hazardous than the
upper Midwest or New England, but the trauma registry shows that
a striking number of accidents here have nothing to do with the
challenges of the wilderness.
More than one in 10 snowmobile accidents requiring hospitalizations
between 1991 and 1997 involved collisions with motor vehicles, the
records show. Of the 104 people injured in those collisions, 22
suffered brain injuries. Seven died. Thirty-four - nearly a third
- were under 18.
"Letting kids loose on a snowmachine is like giving them a live
hand grenade," said Sgt. Dallas Massey, of the Talkeetna trooper
post. "People will buy big snowmachines, big powerful 600cc snowmachines,
and I'll see little kids riding them. That shows a lack of judgment
on parents' part. There's no way a little child 10 or 11 years should
be on machine that can do 100 mph."
A 16-year-old in Alaska needs parental permission to get a driver's
license to operate a motor vehicle on roadways, where top speeds
are limited to 65 mph. There are no such requirements for driving
snowmobiles that can go 100 mph or faster and, in most cases, do
And unlike a car or truck, a snowmobile offers no protection for
its riders. There are no seat belts, no shoulder harnesses, no shock-absorbing
frames, no air bags. And snowmobiles are often used in rough terrain,
away from controlled rights of way, and in areas of poor visibility.
Some parents think their children can handle it. Bill Wivoda, father
of 9-year-old Russell, blames the Fairbanks accident on the pickup
driver, saying the man was not paying attention. Bill Wivoda plans
to challenge his son's ticket in court this month.
Norma Wivoda, Russell's mother, said her son was driving a 5- or
6-year-old Yamaha Bravo, a 400-pound machine capable of speeds up
to 45 mph.
"I wouldn't let him on it if I didn't think he could," the father
The American Academy of Pediatrics has been trying to keep children
off snowmobiles for more than a decade.
In a 1988 recommendation, its Committee on Accident and Poison
Prevention said, "Snowmobiles are inappropriate for use by children
and young adolescents and should not be used by children younger
than 16 years of age."
"We feel very strongly that these are powerful pieces of equipment
that aren't toys - a lot of judgment needs to be incorporated into
operating them," said Dr. Marilyn Bull, current chairwoman of the
committee and a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University Medical
"This may have some controversy in that parents would like to have
kids ride with them at 14, but the injury risks go skyrocketing
in younger riders," she said in a telephone interview.
While studies in Alaska, the Midwest, New England and Scandinavia
show that snowmachine accident victims are most likely to be males
in their 20s or 30s, many of the seriously injured are much younger.
Of the 1,038 snowmobile accident victims hospitalized in Alaska
between 1991 and 1997, 87 - about 8 percent - were under age 16,
the trauma registry showed. Of these 87, 16 suffered brain injuries.
Ten of the 16 were hurt in or near road-system towns and six from
In Sweden, the minimum age for a snowmobile operator is 16. In
Minnesota and Michigan, children under 12 can ride only under "direct"
adult supervision. In New Hampshire, an adult must be on the snowmachine
with a child under 12 who hasn't taken a course, while Wisconsin
requires an adult rider for that age child under all circumstances.
Most of the states allow children from 12 to 18 to ride unaccompanied
if they are wearing a helmet and have passed a snowmachine safety
class, usually from eight to 11 hours and often including hands-on
training. Some states offer the classes in public schools.
Statistically, said Jeff Thielen, Minnesota's chief snowmobile
safety official, all indications are that his state shouldn't be
letting children younger than 16 drive.
"It's right before they get their driver's license," Thielen said.
"They don't know the driving rules of the road. They don't have
the maturity yet."
Thielen's counterpart in New Hampshire, Capt. Tim Acerno, said
he believes children can operate low-powered machines safely with
proper training, but he doesn't understand parents who give children
high-performance snowmobiles. In January, a 14-year-old boy driving
a snowmobile with a 750cc engine - one of the biggest made - crashed
head-on into a snowmobile driven by a 12-year-old girl, Acerno said.
She suffered a serious brain injury and nearly died.
"I throw it back to the parents," he said. "The parents have to
assume some responsibility."
Kevin Hite, vice president of the Alaska State Snowmobile Association,
said many people in his organization would object to imposing any
legal restrictions, including mandatory training, based on age.
"Speaking personally, I think, yeah, it's dangerous to our sport
that a 14-year-old or a 12-year-old can get on the same machine
that I do and perform the same activities that I do with no training
in place," Hite said. "I'm in favor of at least a minimal amount
of training for kids."
Alaska's 23 snowmobile fatalities this season were split about
evenly between villages and the areas along road corridors between
Kenai and Fairbanks.
Drownings predominate at the start and the end of the snowmobile
season in Alaska. This year was no exception. Five people drowned
in October and November. Another drowned this month near Dillingham.
Two people were killed when they triggered avalanches while highmarking.
Exposure killed four who got lost in the Bush.
A 17-year-old pedestrian, Jose Payne, was killed when he was struck
from behind by snowmachiner Sean Doyle, 29, near Wasilla. Doyle
was also killed, apparently when Payne, thrown into the air, hit
him in the head. Doyle, with seven convictions for driving offenses,
couldn't legally drive a car because his license was suspended in
1997 for reckless driving, but a snowmachine, officially an "off-road
vehicle," doesn't require a license. Autopsy results showed Doyle
had a blood-alcohol content of .23, more than twice the legal limit.
Four men and a woman were killed in collisions - two in Nikiski,
one in Big Lake, one in Barrow and one near Paxson. Two men, one
woman and a 14-year-old boy died after they lost control of their
snowmachines. One fell off and was struck by another snowmobiler;
the others were crushed when their snowmobiles rolled over them.
For those who survive serious snowmobile accidents, the suffering
can continue for years, sometimes for a lifetime. Of the 1,038 injury
hospitalizations reported to the Alaska Department of Health between
1991 and 1997, 162 victims survived brain injuries and 22 spinal
injuries. The fatalities are publicly noted, but these serious injuries
go unnoticed outside small circles of families, friends and medical
Such is the case even when accidents occur in such a public event
as the Iron Dog Gold Rush Classic, a 2,000-mile, bone-jarring ordeal
from Wasilla to Nome to Fairbanks.
This year, Robbie Everts of Fairbanks broke his neck. In the 1999
race, Jack Klayum of Chugiak broke his back, but he returned this
year to earn rookie of the year honors with partner Eric Quam.
Klayum's and Quam's official biographies on the Iron Dog Web site
don't even mention them starting last year's race, though their
other races are listed.
Iron Dog spokeswoman Harriet Fenerty said race officials have a
"don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to injuries. Race officials
don't volunteer accident information.
"It doesn't need to be anywhere," she said.
"I don't think it's unusual," added Everts, the Fairbanks driver.
"Certainly it's important to not give any race like that any negative
Klayum's accident illustrates the risks of high speeds and rough
trails. Quam said he and his partner were pounding over rock-hard
bumps on the way out of Nome in bad light in 1999 when they came
to a particularly big mogul. Quam hit it first and turned to see
Klayum hit it, at about 70 mph.
"It threw him off," Quam said. "The machine rolled. The cowling
broke off it. Parts and pieces were everywhere. Jack was kind of
conscious. I saw the hands and feet moving. I thought that was a
With no radio to call for help, Quam loaded Klayum on the undamaged
machine and drove 20 miles back to Nome at 5 mph. Klayum, he said,
was cringing in pain at each little bump.
Doctors later told him he had broken several vertebrae. Klayum
wore a back brace for 10 weeks. He couldn't be reached for comment,
but Quam said Klayum now "is close to 100 percent."
Because he had no medical insurance, however, Klayum is still paying
off $20,000 to $25,000 in medical bills, Quam said.
"Live and learn," Quam said.
Everts' wreck also happened on a bump, he said in a phone interview
from Fairbanks. Everts said he was following his partner at about
80 mph down the Yukon River when he rounded a bend about 15 miles
outside of Galena and saw a huge bump. He never saw his partner
waving frantically in warning.
Everts and his snowmobile flew about 25 feet into the air. When
they came down, the impact flipped the snowmobile and sent it cartwheeling
down the snow-covered river. Everts was thrown clear. He somehow
rose to his knees after the accident, then stood, knowing something
serious was wrong with his neck. The snowmobile remained operable.
Everts' partner put the cowling and windshield back on, and the
men drove back to Galena. Everts was airlifted to the hospital.
Doctors have told him he will have to wear the "halo" device supporting
his neck until May. Metal pins are holding his bones together.
While these injuries occurred in competition, Dr. Stephen Tower,
an Anchorage orthopedist, said they are representative of snowmobile
accident injuries in general.
Tower raised a stir last year when he and two colleagues wrote
a scorching attack on the hazards of snowmobiles. Published in the
opinion section of the Daily News, it included a suggestion that
parents who allow children to operate snowmobiles are guilty of
abuse or neglect. Tower has since toned down his rhetoric, but he's
even more adamant about the risks of snowmobiling after studying
accident records in the state trauma registry.
"Basically you become a human projectile," Tower said.
In accidents like Klayum's, in which a rider's lower back is pounded
by bumps taken at high speed, the lower vertebrae can burst from
the force, he said.
Describing other cases he has seen, he said, "Pedestrian accidents
are not common, but when you see them, they're horrific."
In comparing accidents involving skiers, skaters, sledders and
snowmachiners, Tower found that the first three tend to suffer single
fractures from falling down, while snowmachiners often have multiple
broken bones. To underline the seriousness of these accidents, he
notes that hospitalized snowmobilers, on average, stay twice as
longas people injured in all-terrain vehicle accidents.
Snowmachine accident victims are most likely men in their 20s,
early in their working lives, Tower said, and they often lack medical
"If it's a serious injury, they may be unemployable and wind up
on ... disability and being a public expense. When their injuries
are long term or permanent, the state picks up the tab," he said.
Hite, the state snowmobiling association vice president, sharply
criticized Tower's attack on snowmobiling last year but agrees that
more needs to be done to make snowmobiling safer.
For the first time, the state has substantial money - $122,000
this year, an expected $188,000 next year - to spend on trails and
safety. The money comes out of a legislative initiative that brought
point-of-sale registration for snowmachines to Alaska in 1998.
While Alaskans have always been required to register their snowmachines,
the law was mostly ignored, Hite said. Under a bill sponsored by
Rep. Bev Masek, R-Willow, dealers were authorized to collect the
$10 biannual registration fee at sale. Snowmachine groups supported
the measure because the money is supposed to go back to them in
Under the new law, state snowmachine registration leaped from 13,000
in 1997 - typical for most of the decade - to 23,500 in 1999. With
an average life span of less than 10 years, the number is expected
to grow rapidly as old, unregistered machines are junked and replaced
with new ones.
Hite said about 15 Alaskans have recently been certified as instructors
and another 25 are taking advanced classes now. With teachers in
place, it's only a matter of time and money before training can
begin in urban areas and the Bush. Hite says the voluntary classes
will not only stress operational safety and sobriety, but ethics
and etiquette to reduce the conflict between snowmachiners and others
who venture into the backcountry.
Troopers are also experimenting with stepped-up snowmobile patrols.
After fielding numerous complaints from Fairbanks pedestrians run
off sidewalks and bike trails, troopers there announced a crackdown
in February. They targeted snowmobiles in the city and along the
Chena River, looking for unregistered machines, drunken drivers
and operators running illegally on roads and sidewalks.
In the first week or so, troopers issued 60 warnings, according
to Sgt. Ronald Wall. About 10 percent of the machines they came
across were unregistered, he said. Except for drunken driving or
stolen snowmachines, which would result in arrests, Wall initially
planned to issue warnings for about a month, then write tickets.
But the snow got so soft in March that the crackdown was abandoned
before the citation phase.
Matanuska-Susitna-area troopers have no plan yet to follow the
lead of their colleagues in Fairbanks, but they have tried limited
patrols at staging areas to check on registration, said Lt. Chuck
Feller of the Palmer Detachment, and they are reviewing plans for
For now, little else is planned, but Sen. Johnny Ellis, the Anchorage
Democrat who first proposed the mandatory helmet law for children,
is watching to see how the state snowmobile group does with its
voluntary training program.
"I will take them at their word that they want to be reputable
and responsible people, especially when it comes to kids," Ellis
said. "I would make a call for the snowmachine riders to not make
the government intervene. But they're asking for the rights to continue
to use public lands, and with any kind of privilege comes responsibility.
If those things don't work and the death toll continues, the government
should look at what our laws should be."
Reporter S.J. Komarnitsky contributed to this story. Reporter
Richard Mauer can be reached at email@example.com.
Anchorage Daily News