Lawmakers OK snowmobile speed limit
By Gary Ridderbusch
News-Review Asst. Editor
Closing in on an all-time record for snowmobile deaths, state legislators have OK'd a plan to set a maximum speed limit of 55 miles per hour for snowmobile operation at night.

The legislation aimed at saving snowmobilers' lives heads to Gov. Jim Doyle's desk to be signed into law after the state Senate approved the plan 31-2 last Thursday.

At least 35 people have lost their lives in snowmobile accidents since the season's first snowmobilers hit the trails late last fall. With a few weeks of snowmobiling left in some parts of the state, Wisconsin is just three fatalities short of surpassing the record-breaking 37 fatal accidents of the 2004-'05 season.

Bev Dittmar, president of the Bo-Boen Snowmobile Club in St. Germain, said she can't see much objection to the new law.

"I don't think it's going to hurt anything," she said. "If this slows them down a little, it's worth it."

While Dittmar agrees that speed is a problem, she questioned how the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) would enforce the speed limit.

"About the only place they could enforce it is on a lake or on a railroad grade," she said. "It would be kind of hard to go 55 mph on a winding trail in the woods."

State Rep. Dean Kaufert (R-Neenah), who authored the bill, hopes the law will help slow snowmobilers down. Wisconsin law now places no speed limits on snowmobilers unless they are driving alongside a roadway.

"It has been another tough, tough year out on the snowmobile trails, and anything we can do to help save lives in the future is crucial," he said.

"Wisconsin's snowmobilers, myself included, want to know they will have a safe experience out on the trails every time they start up their machine," said Kaufert. "By reducing the maximum nighttime speed limit on the trails to 55 miles per hour, we are hoping to drastically reduce the number of fatalities that occur due to people going too fast for their own good."

The legislative initiative was supported by the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs, which has been working with the DNR to address the increasing number of accidents and fatalities in the state.

"People need to use caution when mixing alcohol and snowmobiling, be responsible and slow down at night," said Kaufert. "Our hope is that the nighttime speed limit will serve as a reminder to sportsmen and -women that snowmobiling can be dangerous if caution isn't exercised."

Assembly Bill 840 will now go to the governor's desk for his signature. If signed by the governor, the nighttime speed limit will be in effect for the 2006-'07 snowmobile season.

Originally, the legislation would have put the speed limit in place for two years and included money for DNR enforcement teams to patrol state trails. But the legislation approved last week would only put the limits in place for one year and stripped the money for enforcement teams.

Dittmar, an avid snowmobiler who saw the DNR enforcement teams in the North Woods this winter, said they didn't reduce snowmobile-related deaths here. There have been more than a dozen snowmobile deaths in the North Woods this winter.

"They made the big push this year and the extra law enforcement didn't help," she said. "I guess you can't put laws (or extra enforcement) out there to stop stupidity."