Many youth in Canada grow up snowmobiling, but safety groups concerned

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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CALGARY - Crystal Tracey was 13 when, as she was racing along an unplowed road at full speed with some friends, her snowmobile hit a bump.
She landed hard, her chest smacking down into her handlebars.
"I hit one of the moguls and I crashed on the next one. I just hit straight down, and I fell forward onto it and I cracked a bunch of my ribs," she recalls ruefully.
Tracey, who lives in Crowsnest Pass, Alta., is now 18 and says she learned from that mistake, both in how she rides and the gear she straps on to keep her safe, which now includes a Kevlar vest to help keep her ribs intact.
She's been snowmobiling as long as she can remember, clambering onto her first small machine at the age of two, and says her experience has taught her to be a safer rider.
But some safety organizations suggest snowmobiles are far too risky to be used for recreation by anyone under the age of 16.
"From a recreational point of view, we say no one under the age of 16 should use them, either operating them or as passengers from that recreational point of view, because the risk of injury is just too high," says Dr. Natalie Yanchar, chair of the injury committee of the Canadian Pediatric Society.
An average of four children under the age of 16 die in snowmobiling accidents each year, and a survey of 16 hospitals showed about 70 to 80 injury accidents just at those locations, she said.
Many young people start riding because they see their parents enjoying the sport, says Dennis Burns, executive director of the Canadian Council of Snowmobile Organizations.
Often they start motoring around very close to home on child-sized snowmobiles and graduate over time to bigger machines and less supervision, he said.
Each province has its own rules about when youth can start to ride, said Burns, ranging from no requirements at all to the need to take safety certification before being allowed to ride and some requirements for adult supervision.
It's important for parents to keep a close eye on their kids and to limit the type of machine they use, but an all-out restriction is not the answer, he said.
"The only way you can keep your sport growing is you've gotta have the youth coming in, and they've got to have an interest."
Snowmobiling is a very popular pastime in many rural parts of Canada.
Seventeen-year-old David Sheridan started riding at six when his parents got him a child-sized snowmobile as a Christmas present. He renewed his interest at 12 when he was able to take a safety certification in Ontario and begin riding an adult machine.
He now rides to work and says often a handful of snow machines can be seen parked in the lot outside his Huntsville, Ont., high school because kids have used them to get to class.
His dad rides with the snowmobile unit of the Ontario Provincial Police, and Sheridan says he's always been extremely careful and has never been injured while riding.
"It gives young people responsibility, they have to obey all the rules and regulations and it gets them prepared for driving on roads with cars," he said.
Yanchar said there's no evidence to show that training programs make young riders safer. Youth are more impulsive and lack the same judgment skills and life experience that adults can use to make split-second decisions, she said.
"Just that maturity to know this is not safe as opposed to, this is fun," she said.
"The benefits of recreational snowmobiling in children do not outweigh the risks - that risk of severe injuries, head injuries, or the risk of death."
Tracey said she has some male friends who are definitely reckless. She agrees that some restrictions should be put in place, especially on the size and power of machines that younger children can use, but only within reason.
"I don't think that kids should be completely restricted from riding a machine - that would be unfair and wrong to keep a kid away from something they enjoy and that could keep them out of drugs and other things," she said.
"It's a sport that keeps you active and always wanting more."

Organizations: Canadian Pediatric Society, Canadian Council of Snowmobile Organizations, Ontario Provincial Police

Geographic location: Canada, CALGARY, Crowsnest Pass Ontario Huntsville

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