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Accidents put spotlight on snowmobile safety

February 25, 2016
By A.J. Rao ( , Westfield Republican

A series of snowmobile accidents in Chautauqua County, including a fatal crash in French Creek, has put a bright spotlight on the popular winter pastime and the importance of rider safety.

Deputy Tom Block, who runs the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office snowmobile division, said there have already been five snowmobile accidents and one fatality reported to the Sheriff's Office since January.

Block, while acknowledging that the 2014-15 season also had a fatality and a staggering nine reported accidents, said the rapid pace of this season's accidents has been particularly noteworthy.

"Sometimes when riding hasn't been good, and all of a sudden, the trails open and everyone's itching to go riding, they think more about riding than maintaining basic safety," Block said. "The trails are busy and everybody is trying to get as much riding done as they can ... and when we have these clusters of good snowmobiling (days), we tend to get a burst of accidents because there's a higher population of snowmobiles on the trails."

Block's recommendation: maintain a safe speed and stay on the marked snowmobile trails.

"There are a lot of hazards off the trail, such as deep snow which can cause people to lose control of their snowmobile," Block said. "If they're not maintaining a safe speed, they tend to run off the trail and hit objects such as trees or overturn."

As recently as Friday, a 53-year-old woman from Mechanicsburg, Pa., failed to negotiate a curve while riding her snowmobile on trail C4A near Townline Road in Ellery. She reportedly went off the marked trail, struck a tree and had to taken to WCA Hospital for further treatment.

On Thursday, a 57-year-old Mayville man suffered the same fate while riding near Barnes Road in Stockton. He was treated at the scene and later released.

Block cited another incident on Thursday, in which a 44-year-old Brocton man was run over by another rider in Cherry Creek and later airlifted to Hamot Medical Center in Erie, Pa.

"They were off the marked trail and (ran into) light, fluffy snow," said Block, indicating that both riders were snowmobiling in a field near Thornton Road. "The marked trails have a hard-packed surface. (Off the trails), the snow can be very soft and it tends to pull the snowmobile and makes it harder to control."

On Feb. 13, an investigation ensued over a serious injury crash that left one man dead and another in critical condition on Trail 4F near Conway Road in the town of French Creek. It was determined that the accident occurred when two snowmobiles crashed into each other head on.

"You can't stop as quick on the snow," Block said. "(Snowmobiles) are not like a car where you can stop on a dime. If you get off in that really soft snow, it can pull you and cause you to lose control (quickly)."

There are approximately 500 miles of snowmobile trails in Chautauqua County. The New York state speed limit on all marked trail systems is 55 miles per hour. Towns and villages may have reduced speed limits posted in their respective areas.

According to the Chautauqua Lake Snowmobiling Club, which maintains more than 200 miles of trails in the area, over 80 percent of the snowmobile trails in the state are located on private lands.

"The importance of staying on the marked trail is not only for safety reasons, but because there are a lot of landowners in the county who are very upset about snowmobilers riding off the marked trail system," Block said. "We're coming close to losing some of those sections of trails because the landowners are upset. They give permission for us to ride between the stakes on the marked trail system - not off into the fields."

For more information on the Chautauqua Lake Snowmobiling Club and the trail system, visit



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