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Snowmobilers placing emphasis on safety

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For long-time B.C. snowmobilers, safety on sleds is just second nature.

"We're born and raised here. We're aware of our environment," said Albert Bush, the owner of Valley Chainsaw and Recreational Ltd. in Pemberton.

"The snowmobile clubs promote that stuff all the time. That's why you join the clubs."

Despite the fact the safety is bred into local snowmobilers, the international sledding community is taking extra steps to promote safety this week in their annual International Snowmobile Safety Week.

Now in its eighth year, the week is sponsored by the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association (ISMA), an organization based out of Michigan, which represents the four snowmobile manufacturers – Arctic Cat, Bombardier, Polaris and Yamaha.

"Safety Week is important because it helps raise the level of awareness for us. People must be reminded to be safety conscious," said Ed Klim, the president of the ISMA.

Safety Week, like the ISMA's Safe Riders! campaign, focuses on the main issues that are the major causes of snowmobiling accidents. The ISMA aims to remind snowmobilers about these main issues:

• Snowmobiling and alcohol don't mix, don't drink and ride;

• Know before you go, always check local ice and snow conditions;

• When night riding slow down, always expect the unexpected;

• Ride Safe, stay on the trail, always respect private property;

• Cross roads with care, don't become road kill;

• Ride smart, ride right, always stay in control;

• One is the loneliest number, never ride alone;

• Know the risks and be prepared. Make every trip a round trip (be avalanche smart).

"It helps to educate our riders and it helps to reinforce our position that you always need to be safe," said Klim.

But safety issues in the snowmobiling community tend to vary depending on different terrain.

"B.C. is not like Ontario and Quebec. The difference is freedom," said Bush. "We don't have traffic cops. We don't have groomed trails that go everywhere so the safety issues are different here."

Riders in B.C. go from the highway straight into the backcountry. But in other provinces, they usually follow a system of interconnecting trails.

"We don't have the lakes and the speeds and the bars in between to induce that kind of unsafe behaviour," said Bush.

The executive director of the B.C. Snowmobile Federation, Clayton Prince, agrees that the snowmobiling dangers vary across the country. He said that the major hazard for snowmobilers in B.C. is avalanches.

"Avalanches are the greatest single danger in the backcountry for people in B.C.," he said.

Of the nine snowmobile fatalities in the province last year, seven were as a result of avalanches.

"Alcohol was suspected in the other two cases," he said.

Prince said the number of snowmobile deaths last year was higher than in previous years by more than half.

"We had the worst avalanche conditions last year," he said.

In order to reduce the risks Prince said there are a number of steps that snowmobilers can take, including always being aware of their surroundings.

"We also try to encourage people to take an avalanche awareness course to get people aware of the threat," he said.

Promoting safety seems to get people thinking about the ramifications of their behaviour and Klim wants to keep those thoughts at the top of people's minds when they are out on their sleds.

"We know that drinking and riding make up 40-50 per cent of the accidents," he said. "We know it has been declining so we think the education efforts have been working."

Currently there are 83 snowmobile clubs in B.C. that belong to the BCSF.

The federation would like the individual clubs to promote Safety Week throughout Jan. 13-19.

"We are encouraging our clubs at a local level. We encourage our clubs to have an event this weekend that promotes safety," said Prince.

The four snowmobiling manufacturers have always been actively involved in promoting safe riding behaviour while snowmobiling. Over one million brochures, decals and hundreds of thousands of posters and safety videos have been distributed to riders around the world.

And safety manuals are always given to buyers when they purchase a snowmobile.

"It's common courtesy to abide by the so-called unwritten regulations. It's not something that's policed here," said Bush. "To me, (safety) is a non-issue. We're prepared. It's the people that are from the city that are the ones we need to rescue."

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