“The nights are colder now. Maybe I should close the door. And anyway the snow has covered all your footsteps. And I can follow you no more…” The Moody Blues. (2003) “A Winter’s Tale” on December, Genoa, ITA: Universal Records.
Reputable sources claim that Joseph-Armand Bombardier was a shy, determined Quebecer who dreamed of building a vehicle that could “float on snow”. In 1937, the world’s first snowmobile rolled out of his workshop. By 1959, that one lonely vehicle multiplied into an entire line that would take the Canadian market by storm, catapulting an unknown mechanic from Valcourt and the iconic ‘Ski-Doo’ snowmobile brand he invented to the heights of Canadian industry.
The result? The term ‘skidoo’ is synonymous with snowmobile both at home and abroad. Today Bombardier Inc. is a multinational billion dollar corporation that’s not only a leader in the fabrication of recreational winter vehicles and products like skidoos, but is now also famous the world over for its innovation in the areas of transportation services and aerospace engineering.
Arguably, skidoos changed the face of Canadian winters forever. With their advent, both locals and travellers could now effectively get to those living way off the beaten path. Remote rural areas long deemed barely accessible or [if so] at great risk could now be reached. Getting supplies or any type of emergency assistance to families living at a considerable distance from any main road or highway, particularly in isolated areas up North was now possible and in a much shorter period of time then ever before. That said, I’m a bit of a newbie when it comes to skidoos. I don’t own one and have never, ever been a passenger on one. In order to compensate for my ignorance on the topic, I turned to other sources to provide guidance on what these machines are all about. My goal was to understand how snowmobiles work, what is required to drive one and what the liability issues are for drivers, especially regarding motor vehicle accidents. The other matter of interest is what provincial statutes cover snowmobiles and what the common law says when it comes to getting injured on one or injuring others while driving one in Ontario.
We begin our analysis by looking at the rights and responsibilities of snowmobile owners and drivers. As per the Highway Traffic Act, 1990, “motorized snow vehicles” do not meet the criteria for “motor vehicle” set out in section 1 of the Act. However, they are covered by Ontario’s Motorized Snow Vehicles Act, 1990, which includes an insurance requirement.
As per section 12 (1), “no person shall drive a motorized snow vehicle, unless the vehicle is insured under a motor vehicle liability policy in accordance with the Insurance Act, 1990, and the owner of a motorized snow vehicle shall no permit any person to drive the vehicle unless the vehicle is so insured.
As per the Ministry of Transportation [MTO], snowmobiles must be registered with MTO and have a valid snowmobile permit and registration number decal visible at all times on them. Unless you are driving a registered snowmobile on your own property or you are a resident of northern Ontario that is exempt the same way with ATVs [see “Off the Beaten Path: the Liability of All-Terrain Vehicles in Ontario”, August 25, 2014], you must have a validation sticker on your registration decal. You must carry your driver’s licence or Motorised Snow Vehicle Operator’s Licence [MSVOL] and evidence of your vehicle’s registration at all times and show it to a police officer when asked. There is an annual fee for the sticker, which must be shown in the upper right corner of the decal.
Snowmobiles are only permitted on public highways when directly crossing. In specific circumstances, snowmobiles can operate on the non-serviced portion of some highways. Local municipalities also have authority to pass bylaws governing the use of snowmobiles on highways under their jurisdiction.
With respect to insurance, you must have liability insurance to drive a snowmobile off your own property. Carry your insurance card on you and show it when police or conservation officers ask for it. Please note there is an exception for requiring insurance when a snowmobile is only being operated on land owned by a snowmobile’s owner. Finally, if someone else uses your snowmobile with your consent, you are both responsible for any penalties, damages or injuries incurred.
Ontario boasts over 40,000 km of trails; the world’s largest trail network. Ontario drivers must meet a number of requirements before they can get a licence to ride on them or anywhere the law allows them to. As per MTO, you can drive a snowmobile if you have a valid Ontario driver’s licence of any class. If you do not have a driver’s licence and are 12 years of age or older, you need a valid MSVOL to drive on trails, established and maintained by a recreational organisation for the use of snowmobiles. However, you must be 16 years of age or older and have driver’s licence or an MSVOL to drive a snowmobile along or across a public road where snowmobiles are allowed. The MSVOL is issued by the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs [OFSC] in cooperation with MTO. You must successfully pass a snowmobile driver-training course to get a licence. Anyone who drives and rides on a snowmobile must wear an approved helmet and driving while impaired is illegal same as it is with all motor vehicles. If you are going riding off your own property, MTO advises you to carry your OFSC Trail Permit to allow you on club trails. Drivers may not enter private property without permission, including club trails where you’re not a member. Speed limits include 50 km/hr on trails, 20 km/h on roads with posted speeds of 50 km/h or less, and 50 km/h on roads with posted speeds over 50 km/h. Snowmobiles are not permitted on 400 series highways, the QEW, Ottawa Queensway and Kitchener-Waterloo Expressway.
According to the various websites I consulted, there are at least 6 kinds of snowmobiles available for purchase on the Canadian market. These types include snowmobiles meant for: utility, touring, youth, trails, mountains and performance.
Utility or ‘working’ snowmobiles make up 20% of the market. These vehicles do everything from carry supplies to make rescues or arctic expeditions possible. They are longer, wider heavier and have more power than recreational skidoos. They do well on trails and in heavy snow and come equipped with an electric start and reverse gear. Examples of “utility” or “working” snowmobiles are: Bombardier’s Ski-Doo Skandic Tundra LT 600 ACE, Yamaha’s RS Viking Professional and the Arctic Cat Bearcat 570 XT.
Next we have “touring” snowmobiles, which are made to carry up to 2 people. They are designed to carry 2 people comfortably over long distances and have seating configured to guarantee that. They tend to have longer frames and intended for straight line travel but can corner well at slower speeds. They usually come equipped with an electric start, side-mounted mirrors, reverse gear and larger windshields, but some higher end ones also include amenities like heated seats, MP3 players and communications systems. Touring snowmobiles are larger, heavier and have a longer track length than either “performance” or “trail” snowmobiles. Examples of “touring” snowmobiles are: Bombardier’s Ski-Doo Grand Touring SE 1200 4-TEC, Yamaha’s RS Venture GT and the Polaris LXT Turbo IQ.
There are also “sport” or “youth” snowmobiles meant for younger novice drivers. These vehicles are typically the least expensive of all, but still have quite a bit of kick to them. They have smaller, fan-cooled engines and good suspension so they handle well. They often come with a host of safety features like the ability to limit speed and tether a strap that will kill the engine immediately, if necessary. Most have low horsepower single cylinder motors that won’t overwhelm a beginner. Oddly enough, Yamaha is currently the only manufacturer that doesn’t carry a youth model. Popular examples of “youth” snowmobiles are: the Arctic Cat F120, the Ski-Doo Mini Z and Polaris’s Youth 120.
“Trailing” snowmobiles make up a very large segment of the market. These machines are designed for multiple passengers and provide all the luxury outlined in the “touring” snowmobiles. They have great power, accelerate faster then a “touring” skidoo, but offer more comfort than “performance” vehicles. They can also be a good choice for beginners new to the sport, though not necessarily for youth. They are economically priced, light weight and easy enough to handle on rough trails. Examples of some would be: the Ski-Doo MXZ TNT 550F, the Arctic Cat Sno Pro 500 and Yamaha’s Phazer RTX.
Now, “mountain” snowmobiles are designed for climbing harsh vertical slopes in deep snow. They are light-weight and have very long tracks that work well for climbing. They are very powerful machines with high horsepower engines that perform well in higher altitudes, but are not especially comfortable to ride on. They are narrow and light-weight and maneuver better on vertical climbs then on groomed snow packed trails. Examples of this kind of snowmobile include: the Ski-Doo Summit Everest 600 H E-TEC, Polaris RMK 700 155 and Yamaha’s FX Nytro MTX 162.
Finally, we have what is known as “performance” snowmobiles. Designed for experienced, more adventuresome riders, these machines are built for speed and have the most horsepower of any of the snowmobiles discussed. They typically generate over 85 horsepower, are light weight and are the fastest snowmobiles you can buy. They come with advanced suspension systems combined with very tight cornering capabilities. They are meant to be handled with ease, even at high speed and that’s what makes them the racing machines they are. Although not designed for comfort, these machines are ideal for flying across a frozen lake and will provide riders with an unparalleled adrenaline rush. Examples include: the Arctic Cat CFR 1000, the Yamaha Apex Se and Bombardier’s Ski-Doo 800cc E-TEC.
Needless to say, the numbers show a vibrant snowmobiling community. In Canada, there are more than 660,000 registered snowmobiles; half of those in Ontario. Each snowmobiling season, they cover 1.65 billion km worth of trails. To get an idea of snowmobiling in Ontario, I consulted a few websites, including the latest 2011 Ontario Road Safety Report (ORSAR). The majority of injuries in Canada take place on private property and it’s drivers under 20 years of age that are the most likely to sustain a serious back or head injury. In Ontario, an average of 40 people end up injured and in the ER each week and northern Ontario is responsible for the highest number of ER visits and hospitalizations.
Like in our discussion on ATVs, [see “Off the Beaten Path: the Liability of All-Terrain Vehicles in Ontario, August 25, 2014], there were some discrepancies in the 2011 ORSAR report. The report looked at snowmobile driver, passenger and pedestrian injuries and fatalities from 2006 to 2011, but it never gave you the exact number of accidents there were each year. Unless, you assume that each injured victim represents an accident, you have no way of knowing exactly how many motor vehicle accidents involving snowmobiles actually occurred that particular year.
According to ORSAR’s 2011 report, driver fatalities on highways have steadily gone up, while injuries initially rose than fell. Fatalities off highways have been rising, but the stats are a bit erratic when it comes to the number of injured. As for passengers, the number of fatalities that occurred on highways between 2006 and 2011 has been extremely low and stable; the number of injured not so much. Off highway we see a similar situation playing out as on highway with respect to both the number of dead and injured passengers. Finally, we have pedestrians killed or injured. Fortunately, those numbers on and off-highway were quite low. Overall, road and trail surface conditions are the main factor in collisions, especially the degree of iciness and amount of snow packed on. Speeding and driver error was the next most popular reason drivers crashed.
As per the 2010 Statutory Benefits Schedule [SABS] included in the Insurance Act, 1990, there are 3 classes of injury: minor, non-catastrophic and catastrophic. Actually, there are really only two types of injuries since the inclusion of the Minor Injuries Guideline (MIG) to the SABS in 2011. The reality is the SABS currently provides no technical definition for “non-catastrophic impairments”, so they occupy this “no man’s land” between MIG and CAT criteria which personal injury lawyers and the victims they go to bat for have to navigate cautiously and often at great expense. Under the Act, snowmobile drivers and passengers and/or those in the vehicle they hit or were hit by are entitled to statutory accident benefits, such as medical and rehabilitation benefits, attendant care benefits and income replacement benefits, to name but a few. Of course, the amounts victims receive depend on the nature and severity of the injuries suffered in that particular snow mobile accident.
Like with ATVs and motorcycles, there is no buffer zone between a snowmobile driver and just about anything in its environment. As a result, the harm that befalls victims is often grievous and/ or irreparable. Unfortunately, most personal injury lawyers are all too aware of the long-term consequences victims suffer when injured while on or by a snowmobile. Typical skidoo injuries include head and spinal injuries caused by collisions or overturning snowmobiles. While a leg fracture can get you up to $3,500 in medical and rehab costs under the MIG, “catastrophic” and “permanent cognitive and physical deficits” such as those caused by a severe brain trauma or paralysis can bring in a max of $1,000,000. Either way, those benefits are yours whether or not you are at-fault in the collision as per your insurance policy.
The only benefits you may not be able to recover are those related to any relevant violation to either the Motorised Snow Vehicles Act, 1990 and/or the Criminal Code, like you would find in a drunk -driving case. Ontario has seen its fair share of alcohol-related snowmobile tragedies. My family has experienced such a loss and its something you don’t wish on your worse enemy. That said, there are severe penalties for any who opt to DUI and breach the relevant provincial or federal statutes. If a snowmobile driver has a blood alcohol concentration [BAC] of 50 to 80 milligrams in 100 millilitres of blood (0.05 to 0.08), they could receive a roadside driver’s license suspension of up to 30 days. It is against the law to drive a snowmobile while impaired by alcohol or drugs. If a snowmobile driver is impaired or has a BAC of more than 0.08, or fails/refuses to comply with alcohol or drug testing, his/her driver licence will be suspended immediately for 90 days and the police can charge them under the Criminal Code .Individuals convicted of impaired driving on a snowmobile will lose their driving privileges (including their privilege to drive a car) for a minimum of one year. According to the 2011 ORSAR report, alcohol was a factor in only 15% of the snowmobile collisions between 2010 and 2011. However, that’s not always been the case. The website allonetario.ca cites stats from studies done back in 2003-2004, that show that alcohol was a factor in 49% of hospital admissions for severe trauma cases arising from a snowmobile accident.
Snowmobiling is now considered a ubiquitous part of the great Canadian winter. Each season, thousands of Ontarians or tourists take on the frosty majesty of our beautiful woodland or mountain trails, or even the possibility of gliding across at top speed on the frozen surface of our many lakes and waterways.
Whatever your preference, there is one thing all riders share in common: extreme vulnerability. As previously underlined, snowmobile drivers and passengers have no protection from either the elements or other vehicles. A snowmobile collision can end in the ER or a funeral home and only sheer luck determines which. Needless to say, the impact these types of accidents can have on your life or the life of your loved ones is inestimable at best and earth-shattering at worse. If you or your family has been involved in a snowmobile accident and would like to get some clarity around what insurance benefits you can claim under Ontario’s Statutory Benefits Accident Schedule, please consult a qualified personal injury lawyer who is familiar with the relevant provincial statutes and common law and allow them to get the compensation you deserve.