ST. PAUL, MINN. — The campaign to crack down on reckless and drunk drivers is making its way to the backwoods snowmobile trails of Minnesota.
Spurred on by public outrage over the deaths of two children - both pedestrians run down by snowmobiles - and the increasing number of accidents on Minnesota's trails, state officials are developing ways to make one of the most popular winter pastimes in the frozen north safer.
"When I'm driving down the highway, going 55 or 65 m.p.h and I can't keep up with snowmobiles in the ditch, then we've got a problem," says state Rep. Doug Peterson (Democratic Farmer-Labor Party), a snowmobile legislation author. "There's a few of them who are out of control."
During the past decade, deaths due to snowmobile accidents have climbed from two in the winter of 1986-87 to 28 so far this season. This trend has Minnesota - the state with the most snowmobiles in the country - leading the effort to crack down on reckless snowmobiling and other states and the snowmobile industry watching to see what will happen.
Legislators have initiated a blizzard of bills to stiffen penalties for fleeing police officers, require liability insurance and safety training, and raise registration fees.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wants to beef up patrols with better sleds, portable Breathalyzers, helmet-mounted radios, and radar guns.
Currently, Minnesota law imposes few restrictions on snowmobilers even though sleds can travel 100 miles per hour. People over 18 can drive snowmobiles without insurance or safety training - even if their driver's license has been suspended for drunk driving.
"A couple of weeks ago, one of our officers stopped someone who was snowmobiling while intoxicated," says Mike Grupa, an administrator with the enforcement division of the state Department of Natural Resources. "He used the snowmobile to go back and forth to work. He didn't have a driver's license because he had five Diving While Intoxicateds."
Compounding the problems of enforcement, the Department of Natural Resources has only 145 field officers to patrol more than 15,000 miles of trails.
"You, can ride for weeks and weeks and not see an enforcement officer," says Dick Hendricks, publisher of Snowmobile magazine based in Minnetonka, Minn. "That kind of takes away the deterrent."
The trails themselves have also become a problem. Many are too narrow for two wider, modern sleds to pass abreast - a factor blamed for head-on accidents.
"The trails were built for the technology of the early 1970s," says Doug Franzen, legal counsel for Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association.
While the snowmobile association agrees that improving safety is necessary, some snowmobilers feel that the proposed raise in registration fees paid once every three years - from $30 to $60 for owners of large sleds - is not the answer.
"We're getting an unfair shake for the snowmobilers," said Eugene Krueger, a longtime snowmobile enthusiast.
Because Minnesota stands out in attacking these issues with such vigor, the debate is attracting nationwide attention.
"The spotlight for snowmobiling is always on Minnesota," he says. "Even if states like Maine and Pennsylvania aren't having problems right now, if we can make some new legislation that leads the way for the the rest of North America, I think that's fantastic."