Winter is a beautiful time to experience Michigan’s outdoors. Whether riding a portion of Michigan’s groomed snowmobile trails or riding an off-road vehicle (ORV) to a favorite remote icefishing hole, the Department of Natural Resources reminds riders to always exercise safety.

With more than 6,200 miles of designated groomed snowmobile trails located throughout state and federal forests, and many acres of privately owned lands, Michigan is one of the top snowmobiling destinations in North America. While the DNR does not recommend that riders operate on the ice, Michigan’s 11,000-plus lakes also tempt operators to ride on the frozen surfaces.

“With Michigan’s riding opportunities also comes inherent risks associated with motorsports,” said Gary Hagler, chief of the DNR’s Law Enforcement Division. “It is each rider’s responsibility to ensure their safety and the safety of their passengers and bystanders.”

There are several common factors with snowmobile and ORV accidents in Michigan. The DNR urges snowmobilers and ORV operators to take simple precautions this winter season. Excessive speed, alcohol use, inexperience, failure to wear helmets, operating on roadways and unfamiliarity with terrain are some of the most common factors involved in accidents. Many fatal accidents have one or more common factors as contributing causes.

Snowmobilers and ORV operators are reminded to:

  • Never operate under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Slow down
  • Wear safety equipment such as a helmet, eye protection, protective clothing and insulated boots and gloves
  • Always operate with the flow of traffic and stay as far to the right side of any legal road or trail
  • Always keep a machine in top mechanical condition
  • Never ride alone and always leave a travel plan with someone
  • Avoid, when possible, operating on frozen bodies of water
  • Avoid operating in a single file when operating on frozen bodies of water
  • Wear a winter flotation suit whenever operating on the frozen surfaces of water
  • Always be alert and avoid fences and low strung wires
  • Always look for depressions in terrain
  • Only carry passengers when the machine is designed to do so
  • Ensure that headlights and tail lights are on at all times
  • When approaching an intersection, come to a complete stop, raise up off the seat and look for on-coming traffic
  • Always check the weather conditions before departure
  • Bring a cell phone and other basic safety gear (something to start a fire with, rescue throw rope, self-rescue ice spikes, tow strap, flashlight, compass, blanket, etc.)

“Operators should respect the speeds that snowmobiles and ORVs are capable of attaining, and the demands that operating over snow and ice pose,” Hagler said. “Safety education is a crucial factor in safe and responsible snowmobile and ORV operation. Safety education is required for youths and highly recommended for all others.”

Persons interested in finding a safety course, go online to www.michigan.gov/dnr and click on the “Education & Outreach” menu and then select Hunter Education & Recreational Safety Classes. Safety training classes are offered in a classroom setting and some are available online.

The DNR does not recommend operating on the frozen surface of water; however, the DNR recognizes that it is a popular activity. If an ice crossing is unavoidable there are several safety concerns operators need to be aware of in the event they fall into the freezing water.

Once a person is suddenly immersed in freezing water, their respiratory system will automatically and instantly have an uncontrollable inhaling gasp reflex because of the cold shock. If initially under the water, individuals will inhale water into their lungs. It is critical to get your head above the surface and first get your breathing under control which will take at least one minute. If you do not control your breathing the chances of drowning sooner are exponentially increased. Once you have your breathing under control, get to the edge of the solid ice you were at before you fell in because you know that ice held your weight at one point. Secure your arms on top of the edge of good ice. Use your arms to lift your body up and kick your feet hard in a swimming motion while leaning over the good ice. Get your upper body up onto the solid ice and roll away from the open water. Using self-rescue ice spikes, which typically consist of two plastic cylinders with spikes on one end connected with a line, can greatly assist in pulling yourself out of the water onto safe ice. Once you are out, do not stand up immediately or you will have an increased risk of falling through thin ice again. Once far enough away from the open water, begin to crawl away and eventually walk.

If you’re unable to get yourself out of the water ensure your arms, and as much of your upper body, are out as far as possible. Reach out as far as you can onto the ice and do not move your arms. This will hopefully freeze your clothes to the ice and keep you from falling farther back in and increase the chances of being rescued. You will lose effective movement in roughly 10 minutes, but you can remain conscious for up to two hours. You should yell or signal for help.

Do not remove any protective gear such as a helmet or jacket. Your appropriate protective gear (riding clothes, suit and helmet) will offer some degree of floatation and provide insulating qualities. Helmets, while not marketed as a Personal Flotation Device (PFD), are partially constructed of foam liners and offer about the same amount of buoyancy as a PFD. Wearing a helmet will also help retain body heat around your brain which would otherwise be lost quicker, hastening unconsciousness, if not wearing a helmet.

There are free safety videos available online to illustrate what to expect and how to react in cold water immersion scenarios. These videos made be viewed at: http://www.yukonman.com/cold_water.asp.

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