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Column originally published Apr 1, 2003

Most Snowmobile ‘Accidents’ Can Be Avoided If Certain Rules Are Followed

Question: Our sons are four and six years of age. They have always wanted to go with their father snowmobiling. I have forbidden them to go because I was worried that they are too young. Lately I heard that a few young children were hurt riding the snowmobile. Can you tell me how old children should be before they can safely ride a snowmobile?


I am very glad that you did not allow your young sons to ride the snowmobile. As expected, children are naturally curious and love adventures. They are definitely too young to operate a snowmobile. Furthermore, it is not safe for them to ride one even as a passenger.

Snowmobile is a popular recreational vehicle in Canada and United States. It is a very powerful machine and can travel at high speed. As a result, snowmobile accidents are common every winter. A large proportion of snowmobile accidents occur as a result of a combination of speed and alcohol. The safe speed varies according to the terrain and weather condition. Use of alcohol reduces a person’s ability to make proper judgment and slows reaction time, making accidents more likely to occur.

Both Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the two professional organizations for paediatricians in North America, recommend that children younger than 5 or 6 years of age should never be allowed on a snowmobile, even as a passenger. The reason is that if the driver ever loses control, the child will most likely be thrown off the snowmobile and sustain serious or fatal injuries. For those parents who have young children, it is a lot better to leave them at home and get a babysitter while the adults go for a ride. Of course another alternative is to wait until the children get older before the whole family enjoys snowmobile as a winter recreational activity.

Children under 16 years of age should not operate a snowmobile. It is important to remember that snowmobiles have powerful engines. Most of them can attain speeds similar to that of motorcycles. If we don’t allow children to operate a motorcycle, why should we allow them to operate a snowmobile? Operating a snowmobile requires strength, skill, as well as judgement. Although children vary somewhat in the development of these areas, most of them are not able to attain the necessary ability until around 16 years of age.

I would also recommend these young drivers take a snowmobile safety course before operating the machine. This would be like taking the driver’s education course before driving an automobile. Riding a snowmobile actually is more hazardous than driving a car: the snowmobile does not go on the road, the terrain is often bumpy, and there is no protection to the body in case of an accident.

Novice riders should go on groomed trails only when they are learning their skills in operating the snowmobile. They should also ride the snowmobile only during daylight hours, because of increased hazards at night due to poor vision. They should always go out with at least one other experienced rider. Adults should also set an example of not using alcohol or drugs before and during snowmobile excursions.

Although accidents cannot be completely prevented, many accidents can be avoided if one exercise common sense. It is important to be extra cautious when not travelling on groomed trails, and reduce speed when visibility is poor, or making turns. Going through farmland is especially hazardous, because barbed wires are almost impossible to see. Many injuries and deaths have resulted from drivers running into these wires. It is very important to check the weather report before heading out, poor weather and visibility make snowmobiling dangerous. Never tow a child behind the snowmobile using sled, tube, or tire, this is very dangerous.

When snowmobile accidents happen to children and adults, it is not only their parents, family, and friends being traumatized. Health care workers, including physicians and nurses, are often devastated when they have to care for these injured or dead victims. The effect of this trauma can last for a very long time. Therefore, I petition to all parents: don’t allow your children to ride or operate a snowmobile if they are under the age I mentioned above. I would also petition lawmakers to change provincial legislation according to recommendations of CPS and AAP, so that children do not become victims because of our legal system. Snowmobile retailers should also take responsibility not to market these machines to children, and encourage new drivers to take the safety course before embarking on their first ride.

If everyone takes responsibility as I mentioned here, we can drastically reduce snowmobile accidents to the truly accidental ones that are totally unavoidable.

Finally I should mention that in some remote areas, snowmobile may be the only mean of transportation in winter for isolated communities. As a result, young children may have to ride the snowmobile with adults out of necessity. In that situation, the snowmobile should travel at a slow speed.

As always, anyone riding a snowmobile should wear a certified snowmobile helmet and protective clothing.