Maine game wardens brought radar guns onto snowmobile trails for the first time in five years on Friday after the state recorded its fifth snowmobile fatality of the season.
Wardens planned to set up speed traps in Piscataquis and Somerset counties through the weekend and plan to expand the speed traps to other areas during the remainder of the season.
The action came after a Rumford man was killed when his machine careened off a trail Thursday night.
Lee Booker, 41, was accelerating to catch up with a friend and was going too fast when he entered a curve in Andover, said Mark Latti of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The machine flew off the trail and Booker smashed into a tree.
“We’ve had five fatalities, and this is the fourth one that can be directly attributed to speed,” Latti said Friday. “These are all preventable if people slow down.”
The speed traps marked the first time since 1995 that Maine wardens have used radar guns on trails.
There is no speed limit on Maine’s vast network of interconnecting snowmobile trails, but wardens believe their presence alone will slow snowmobilers down.
Wardens also can cite snowmobilers for operating at a “greater than reasonable or prudent speed” or even driving to endanger. Snowmobilers who are cited would have to go before a judge.
Wardens are alarmed because the number of fatalities already exceeded the four that happened last season. But they’re also concerned about the number of accidents in general.
There have been 204 reported accidents to date, including 54 accidents over the last week, Latti said.
Following the spate of accidents, wardens decided to set up the speed traps even before Booker’s death.
Latti said speed is the biggest problem now that wardens have made inroads in stopping drunken snowmobilers. The number of drunken-operator arrests has dropped by almost half so far this year.
But speed can be intoxicating in its own right as manufacturers build machines capable of race-car acceleration.
“The machines get faster and faster, and the trails are pretty much the same as 10 years ago,” Latti said. “Someone who doesn’t know the terrain or is an inexperienced operator, it doesn’t take much to get thrown from the sled.”
Some of the larger snowmobiles costing upward of $10,000 can easily surpass 100 mph, although experienced operators would reach those lofty speeds only on rare occasions, said Elwood Tidd, owner of Tidd’s, a snowmobile shop in Houlton.
But Tidd noted that the high-power machines are not the source of problems because those operators are more experienced and rarely put a scratch on their expensive machines.
“Everyone wants to blame the big sleds. That’s not the problem. It’s inexperience,” he said.
While Maine is having problems this season, New Hampshire has recorded only one fatal snowmobile accident.
“That is wonderful,” said Wayne Vetter, executive director of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. “Zero would be better, but one was great.”
New Hampshire has a 45 mph speed limit but it is sometimes ignored by snowmobilers who push their machines up to 90 mph, Vetter said.
Authorities routinely use speed traps in New Hampshire and, as in Maine, check for operators who have been drinking.
In Maine, the effort of wardens to slow snowmobilers down across the state is backed by the Maine Snowmobile Association, said Bob Myers, executive director in Augusta.
Part of the problem is pent-up demand because of a lack of snow earlier in the season that may be causing some snowmobilers to ride harder to make up for lost time, Myers said.
The Associated Press
Here is a glance at snowmobile fatalities in Maine over the past five years:
this season, 5
Source: Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife