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Another fatal snowmachine accident, 7 this season

Craig Medred

Another snowmachine accident over the Christmas holiday left an Alaskan rider dead. Alaska State Troopers report 25-year-old George Constantine, of Tyonek, died after rolling his sled in that community of about 200, some 40 miles southwest of Anchorage across Cook Inlet.

At least seven Alaskans have now died in snowmachine accidents since the start of winter. A late freeze in Western Alaska contributed to five deaths when snowmachiners went through thin ice and drowned.

Icy conditions because of a snow-short start to the winter along the Southcentral Alaska coast contributed to at least one fatality and might have played a part in Constantine's death. Troopers say he lost control of his Polaris RMK 700 near the intersection of B Street and Pumpkinhouse Road in Tyonek. Snowmachines, as a general rule, are harder to control on icy roads or trails than in snow. Troopers also believe Constantine might have been drinking; alcohol impairs judgment and slows reaction times.

Snowmachines, along with being used by tens of thousands of Alaskans for recreation, are the prevalent form of motorized transportation in rural Alaska in winter. Some years have seen the deaths of close to 30 riders. A state study of snowmachine safety more than a decade ago concluded the rates of death and hospitalization for snowmachine riders are far higher than for drivers of on-road motor vehicles, but little has been done to improve safety.

The report noted a significant number of fatalities related to people going through the ice in areas where frozen rivers or bays provide the only link between rural communities, but added that "more than half (58 percent) of the snowmobile injury deaths involved a natural object such as a boulder, ravine, or river."

Drinking was the other big problem, with alcohol implicated in 65 percent of the fatal accidents that were studied. The report concluded, "Natural obstacles and alcohol intoxication contribute to the high risk of injury death associated with snowmobile use. Injury control strategies, including trail development and improvement, should be evaluated."

The state has since provided some funding for trail marking and grooming in rural areas, but the trail system -- where it exists -- remains primitive. A valid Alaska driver's license was at one time required to operate a snowmachine, but the state Legislature revoked that law. The state snowmobile safety brochure, along with providing tips for safe riding, notes, "Alaska is the only northern jurisdiction in North America that does not have a state snowmobile safety education program.''

The Wasilla-based North America Outdoor Institute did, however, get $15,000 this fall from the state's SnowTrack Grant program to begin development of a safety training program.

Wasilla is home to Iron Dog snowmachine racing champion Todd Palin, the husband of former, half-term Alaska Gov Sarah Palin, who backed a state grant to the Institute to help subsidize the cost of helmets for snowmachine riders.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.