Over the past 15 years, as snowmobiles have become lighter, faster and more powerful, the number of snowmobile-related injuries has tripled. According to an American Academy of Pediatrics study, 18 percent of these injuries occur in children younger than 14 and nearly half in males ages 15 to 24.
Head trauma accounts for the majority of snowmobile injuries, especially in children, but orthopedic, chest and abdominal injuries are common, and many riders have multiple injuries.
In Minnesota, the number of snowmobile-related deaths is relatively small — about 10 people die each year — but a significant portion of patients require intensive care and some have long-term orthopedic or cognitive disabilities. Even those who recover fully often require surgical procedures and extensive rehabilitation and recovery time.
Most snowmobile injuries result from spills, rollovers or collisions with a stationary object. Occasionally, snowmobilers are struck by cars or trains.
Mark D. Sawyer, M.D., a trauma surgeon at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., says that excessive speed, often combined with inexperience or alcohol, is responsible for most snowmobile accidents.
"These days, recreational snowmobiles are nearly as fast as racing sleds — achieving speeds close to 90 miles an hour. But races take place on pre-defined, groomed courses, whereas recreational snowmobiling occurs in woods and open fields with a lot of hidden hazards. Frankly, the speeds recreational vehicles can reach just aren't appropriate for open-field riding."
Studies show that a lack of protective headgear also contributes to snowmobile injuries. Unhelmeted riders are more likely to experience head trauma and to sustain more-severe injuries than helmeted riders are. Minnesota law requires snowmobilers under 18 to wear helmets while on public land, but data show that almost half of snowmobile accidents occur on private property.
From 2006 to 2011, 122 adults and children were treated for snowmobile injuries at Saint Mary's Hospital, one of Mayo Clinic's hospitals in Rochester, Minn., and a Level I adult and pediatric trauma center. Of the two patients under 14 who experienced head trauma, one was unhelmeted. In the adult group — those 15 and older — 77 percent of head trauma patients did not wear helmets.
Still, only one of the 122 patients seen at Saint Marys in the five-year span had fatal injuries.
Dr. Sawyer says that is largely due to the state's trauma system. "The way patients are triaged statewide allows them to move rapidly up the ladder to the appropriate level of care. Most local hospitals know what they can and can't handle and are able to quickly get patients to where they're supposed to be."