By LAURA FOSMIRE
Capital News Service
LANSING — Alex Sapp was only 14 when he died in a snowmobiling accident in Ogemaw County in December.
He and a 15-year-old friend were speeding at night on frozen Grebe Lake when their snowmobile struck a dock and overturned onto Sapp, who was driving.
Both teens were wearing helmets and Sapp’s passenger survived, according to a report from the Department of Natural Resources and Environment.
Sapp was among 14 fatal snowmobiling accidents in Michigan between Dec. 11, 2009 and Feb. 5, 2010, according to the DNRE report.
Snowmobiling fatalities and serious accidents occur regularly, but they’re especially tragic when teens are the victims.
Michigan regulations require operators between 12 and 17 to obtain a snowmobile safety certificate unless they’re directly supervised by someone 21 or older, according to Bill Manson, executive director of the Michigan Snowmobile Association in Grand Rapids.
Regardless of supervision, operators between those ages still must have the certificate before crossing streets or highways.
Manson said that the rules are well followed because parents push for safety.
“We’re seeing more and more families out snowmobiling,” he said. “Once your kid gets to a certain age, they’re not having fun riding double with you, and neither are you. Parents want their kids to get a certificate just to ride a snowmobile, period.”
Teens can get a certificate when they pass a safety class taught by instructors who are certified by the DNRE.
John Oliver teaches such a class in Gogebic County with his wife, Alison. With a permanent residence in Illinois, the couple has a vacation home in Watersmeet where they volunteer to teach snowmobiling safety.
“This is our outreach and support for the community, to be able to add value to the community,” he said. “We’ve been certified in Illinois and are working on our Michigan and Wisconsin certifications.”
Oliver said that snowmobiling gives younger teenagers a sense of freedom before they can legally drive a car.
“It’s the excitement about the ability to operate a motorized vehicle and be out in nature,” he said. “You have the aspect of having a destination. The allure to the sport is the bonding, the friendship.”
Oliver said that the eight-hour classes designed for teenagers cover a broad variety of topics that are important for safe operation of a snowmobile.
“We walk them through the machine aspect of it so they understand the parts of the snowmobile,” he said. “We talk about the safety aspects and maintenance aspects of the snowmobile. In addition, we’ll cover things like the history of snowmobiling, the laws of snowmobiling and the impact of it on the environment.”
The class also covers personal safety, hypothermia and how to safely ride in conditions like white-outs and ice.
Oliver said that rules for teenagers are fairly uniform throughout the Midwest, but Michigan has a stricter age limit.
“To be able to operate a snowmobile by yourself in Michigan, you have to be 12 years old,” he said. “It’s also 12 in Illinois, but you can be 10 and take the class and operate it if you have an adult or guardian on the snowmobile with you.”
Both Oliver and Manson said that speed and alcohol are the biggest contributors to snowmobiling fatalities. Teenagers in particular are warned about these risks.
“We have a zero-tolerance campaign,” Manson said. “Alcohol and snowmobiling don’t mix.
“We lobbied the Legislature to enforce some tough new drunk driving rules,” he said. “We’ve legislated and regulated as much as we can. Right now if you get caught drunk driving on a snowmobile, you get the same thing as a car. It comes down to education.”
Manson said that public attitudes about snowmobiling for teenagers are different in the Upper Peninsula than downstate.
“You do have that ability in a lot of the areas in the U.P. to ride snowmobiles to school,” he said. “They were given a responsibility. They were given a chance to do that and it’s how they were brought up. Down in the Lower Peninsula, there’s not too many schools that have trails.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.