Minnesota’s snowmobile season off to an unusually lethal start

By: - January 11, 2023 8:14 am

Photo via National Park Service

At least six people have died in Minnesota snowmobile accidents in the first two weekends of 2023, already tying the number of people killed in such incidents across the entire 2021-2022 winter season. 

The unusual cluster of fatalities began on the evening of December 31, when a 52-year-old Zimmerman man died after rolling his sled in a ditch. Then in the early hours of January 1, two 21-year-olds were killed when their snowmobile struck a tree outside the city of Isanti.

Last weekend brought three more snowmobile-related deaths: a 12-year-old in Wabasha County who struck a tree, a 64-year-old man whose snowmobile went through the ice on Otter Tail Lake, and a 55-year-old Twin Cities woman who crashed her machine on the Bearskin Trail north of Hibbing.

The spate of lethal accidents come as snowmobile ridership in Minnesota trends upward after several years of decline. The number had peaked at nearly 300,000 machines in 2001 before steadily falling to less than 190,000 in 2017, according to data from the Department of Natural Resources. In recent years, however, that number has rebounded to around 200,000. According to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, only Wisconsin has a greater number of registered snowmobiles.

Snowmobile fatalities in Minnesota are relatively rare. There were just six during the 2021-2022 winter season, and only three in the prior winter. Again, the comparison with Wisconsin is instructive: Overall there have been more than twice as many snowmobile fatalities in the Badger State since 2011, a ratio that holds even after you adjust for differences in the number of registered snowmobiles.

The data also show that while Wisconsin’s numbers are consistently higher, fatal accidents in the two states rise and fall in tandem. This suggests that seasonal factors common to both states are in play, like weather conditions and amounts of snow in the region in any given winter.

Another factor contributing to Wisconsin’s greater mortality is alcohol. Since 2011 70% of fatal crashes there have involved drinking, according to data from the state DNR. In Minnesota, by contrast, alcohol was involved in 54% of fatal crashes over the same period. That disparity is puzzling: Residents of both states have similar rates of regular and heavy drinking, according to federal figures, and operating a snowmobile while under the influence is similarly illegal in both places. 

Authorities also point to excessive speed as a common driver of snowmobile crashes. Many fatal accident reports indicate the operator took a turn too quickly, went off trail, and struck a solid obstacle. More than half of Minnesota snowmobile deaths in the 2019-2020 season, for instance, involved collisions with trees. The Wisconsin DNR lists excessive speed and “sharp turns” as two of the top three contributors to fatal snowmobile crashes, behind only alcohol use.

“Snowmobiles are powerful machines and you have to respect their capabilities,” as the Minnesota DNR reminded riders this week. “In other words: Just because you can go a certain speed on trails doesn’t mean you should! Please…ride based on the conditions, and only to your capabilities.”

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Christopher Ingraham
Christopher Ingraham

Christopher Ingraham covers greater Minnesota and reports on data-driven stories across the state. He's the author of the book "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," about his family's journey from the Baltimore suburbs to rural northwest Minnesota. He was previously a data reporter for the Washington Post.