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Alcohol Involvement in Snowmobile Fatalities in Canada

DJ Beirness, DR Mayhew, and HM Simpson

Traffic Injury Research Foundation of Canada, 171 Nepean Street, Suite 200, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K2P 0B4


While the incidence of alcohol involvement in highway crashes has been well-documented, considerably less attention has been paid to the role of alcohol in fatal crashes involving off-road vehicles. Alcohol is commonly consumed in conjunction with recreational activities. If the use of a motor vehicle is involved, the risk of crash involvement would undoubtedly increase. This presentation examines the incidence of alcohol use among fatally injured operators of one particular class of vehicles - snowmobiles.

The presentation will examine data on fatal snowmobile crashes in Canada from 1987 through 1992. During this period, a total of 497 persons died in such crashes. Fatally injured drivers accounted for 82% of this total; passengers represented 13% and pedestrians 5%. Among fatally injured drivers who were tested for alcohol, 79% had been drinking. The characteristics of the crashes and the drivers involved will be examined. The implications of the findings in terms of programs and policies will be highlighted.


The popularity of snowmobiling as a recreational activity has increased dramatically over the past decade. For example, between 1984 and 1992, the number of registered snow vehicles in Ontario more than doubled -- from 169,172 in 1984 to 366,730 in 1992 (Ontario Ministry of Transportation, 1994). Snowmobile enthusiasts in Ontario have formed 284 local snowmobile clubs as well as a provincial association. These clubs operate and maintain an expanding network of over 35,000 km of groomed snowmobile trails throughout the province. In addition, the Ontario government has invested millions of dollars towards the creation of a trans-provincial trail system to help create an environment conducive to safe and accessible snowmobiling. The economic impact of snowmobiling on the Ontario economy alone is expected to exceed $500 million this year.

The growth in snowmobiling, however, has been associated with increased concern about deaths and injuries as a result of snowmobiling crashes. For example, in 1987, 58 persons in Canada died in snowmobile crashes. In 1993, 98 persons died. The actual number of injuries as a result of snowmobile crashes is elusive. In Ontario, the Ministry of Transportation reports an average of about 400 persons injured in snowmobile crashes each year. Because not all snowmobile injuries are necessarily reported to the police, these figures are undoubtedly a severe underestimate of the true incidence of snowmobile-related injuries each year. Data from a recent survey of snowmobilers (Rowe et al., 1993) suggests that the actual number of snowmobile-related injuries in Ontario exceeds 7,000 per season -- more than 17 times the official figures.

The behaviour of snowmobile operators appears to contribute to a substantial number of crashes. Speeding, riding at night, travelling in unsafe areas (e.g., on lakes, roadways) and alcohol use have been identified as factors associated with a high risk of snowmobile crash involvement (Beirness et al., 1994; 1995; Erikson and Bjornstig, 1982; Rowe et al., 1993; Rogers et al., 1990).

The use of alcohol by snowmobile operators has become an issue of increasing concern. Alcohol is commonly consumed in association with recreational activities. When the activity happens to involve the operation of motor vehicle, the combination can have particularly tragic consequences. In recognition of the inherent dangers of operating a snowmobile under the influence of alcohol, the Criminal Code of Canada indicates that it is an offence to operate any type of motor vehicle -- including motorized snow vehicles -- while impaired or with a BAC in excess of 80 mg%. It does not matter whether the vehicle is being operated on a public roadway or on private property. The law and its penalties are applied to snowmobile operators the same as they are to drivers of highway vehicles.

This paper examines the extent of alcohol involvement in snowmobile fatalities in Canada during the seven-year period from 1987 to 1993. The characteristics of the crashes and victims are also examined.


The primary data were obtained from the Fatality Database of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation. These data include the results of toxicological tests for the presence and amount of alcohol among persons fatally injured in motor vehicle crashes in Canada as contained in coroners' files. Data on snowmobile fatalities were collected from all provinces and territories in Canada for the years 1987 through 1993.


In total, 586 persons died in snowmobile crashes in Canada during the seven-year period from 1987 to 1993. Vehicle operators accounted for 82% (480) of the fatalities, while passengers represented 13% (75) and pedestrians 4% (24). Overall, 71.5% of all fatally injured victims of snowmobile crashes were tested for alcohol and 75% were found to have consumed alcohol prior to the crash. Among fatally injured drivers of snowmobiles, 75% were tested for alcohol and 76% of these cases were found to have alcohol present. The remainder of the paper focuses on alcohol use among fatally injured snowmobile drivers and the characteristics of the crashes in which they are involved.

Driver Alcohol Use

Figure 1 shows the incidence and level of alcohol use among fatally injured snowmobile drivers in Canada. The bar on the right of the figure shows the alcohol level among positive cases. Twenty percent of fatally injured snowmobile operators who had been drinking had a BAC under the legal limit (i.e., 80 mg%). A further 22% had a BAC between 81 and 150 mg%. By far the largest group of fatally injured drinking drivers had a BAC in excess of 150 mg%. This high BAC group comprised 58% of all fatally injured snowmobile operators who tested positive for alcohol.

Figure 1
Alcohol Use Among Fatally Injured Snowmobile Operators

Canada, 1987-1993

Age and Alcohol Use

Figure 2 displays the percent of all snowmobile driver fatalities in each age group (represented by the open bars) as well as the percent of all drinking driver fatalities according to age group (represented by the striped bars). It is apparent in the figure that 20-35 year-olds comprise the majority of all snowmobile operator fatalities. In fact, 55% of all snowmobile operator fatalities are in this age group. Among snowmobile operator fatalities who had been drinking, 40% were between 26 and 35 years of age and a further 28% were between 20 and 25 years of age.

Figure 2
Percent of All Snowmobile Driver Fatalities and Drinking Driver Fatalities According to Age

Canada, 1987-1993

Gender and Alcohol Use

Overall, men comprise over 95% of all persons killed in snowmobile crashes. Men also account for over 95% of all fatally injured snowmobile drivers and 95% of fatally injured snowmobile drivers who had been drinking.

Among fatally injured male snowmobile drivers, 76% were found to have been drinking. Even though women comprise a very small proportion of snowmobile fatalities, 73% of female snowmobile drivers tested positive for alcohol.

Characteristics of the Crash

Just over two-thirds of all snowmobile fatalities occurred as the result of a crash involving only a single vehicle; over three-quarters of drinking driver fatalities were the result of single vehicle crashes.

Among drinking driver fatalities, 70% occurred as the result of either a collision with a fixed object or by going through the ice on a lake or river. Collisions with another vehicle (other than a snowmobile) accounted for 18% of drinking driver fatalities and 33% of non-drinking driver fatalities. Collisions with another snowmobile accounted for 12% of both drinking and non-drinking snowmobile driver fatalities.

Figure 3 shows the distribution of drinking and nondrinking snowmobile driver fatalities according to the time of crash. It is apparent that nondrinking drivers were more likely to die during daylight hours (i.e., 6am to 6pm) and drinking drivers were more likely to be killed between 6pm and 6am. In fact, almost half of all drinking driver fatalities occurred between 6pm and midnight.

Figure 3
Percent of Drinking and Nondrinking Snowmobile Driver Fatalities According to Crash Time

Canada, 1987-1993


In the past, there has been a strong tendency to restrict one's perspective on impaired driving to situations involving passenger vehicles on public highways. The data presented in the present paper highlight the fact that the problem does not end where the road stops. In fact, the proportion of alcohol-related snowmobile operator fatalities (76%) is considerably higher than among fatally injured drivers of highway vehicles in Canada (i.e., 48%: Mayhew et al., 1995).

Specific countermeasure initiatives are needed to address the common practice of consuming alcohol as part of recreational snowmobiling. Although there is a role for increased enforcement of drinking-driving laws, the isolated areas in which snowmobiling tends to occur renders enforcement efforts difficult and inefficient. Therefore, education programs outlining the high risk of operating a snowmobile after drinking delivered through local snowmobile clubs, manufacturers, suppliers, and retailers at the community level may be the most efficient and effective means of generating awareness and concern about drinking and driving among snowmobile operators.


TIRF's Fatality Database is jointly sponsored by the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators and Transport Canada.


Beirness DJ, Simpson HM, Mayhew DR, Brown SW (1994). Drinking and Driving in Ontario. Statistical Yearbook 1992. Toronto: Ministry of the Attorney General.

Beirness DJ, Simpson HM, Mayhew DR, Brown SW (1995). Drinking and Driving in Ontario. Statistical Yearbook 1993. Toronto: Ministry of the Attorney General.

Mayhew DR, Brown, SW, Simpson HM (1995). Alcohol Use Among Persons Fatally Injured in Motor Vehicle Accidents: Canada, 1993. Ottawa: Transport Canada.

Erikson A, and Bjornstig U (1982). Fatal snowmobile accidents in Northern Sweden. Journal of Trauma 22: 977-982.

Ontario Ministry of Transportation (1994). Ontario Road Safety Annual Report 1992. Toronto: Ministry of Transportation.

Rogers CD, Pagliarello G, and Nelson WR (1990). Environmental and rider-related factors in snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle and dirtbike crashes. In: 34th Annual Proceedings of the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine. Chicago: AAAM.

Rowe BH, Caverson R, Therrien S, Bota G, Giesbrecht N, Smythe C (1993). Snowmobilers in a Northeastern Ontario Community: A Survey of Characteristics, Injury Profiles, and strategies for Injury Prevention. Sudbury General Hospital and Addiction Research Foundation.