By Howard Meyerson
Snowmobilers can expect to see major changes on Michigan’s 6,500 mile snowmobile trail system this winter. Many familiar signs have been taken down and a handful of new signs have been installed.
State officials say the move should slow riders down.
“This began three years ago. There was no one accident or recommendation from law enforcement. People just started talking about it,” said Richard Kennedy, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources trail Operations specialist. “Ontario did away with most of their signs in (recent) years. The opinion was that people kept their speed up because of the signs.”
Bruce Wood, the president of the Michigan Snowmobile Association said the new sign system is ready for prime time. MSA is one of several organizations that participated on a Michigan Department of Natural Resources group convened to update Michigan’s snowmobile and off-road-vehicle trail signage system.
“In the long run, we hope to see a reduction in (snowmobile) crashes,” said Wood, of Charlevoix. “We’re doing what we can do get the word out, but there are still too many people who don’t know about the change and won’t when they take their first ride.”
State records show 16 snowmobilers died on the trails in the 2011. There were 13 deaths in 2010, the lowest number in 20 years. Both years were considered mild winter conditions with shorter riding seasons. There were 26 deaths during the 2009 season.
A complete list of the signs is available at the MSA website at: msasnow.org. Riders who plan to go out this winter would be wise to familiarize themselves with the new system. The website also has a link the Michigan Motorized Trail Signing Handbook, the new DNR guidebook for signing motorized off-road-vehicle and snowmobile trails. It integrates what once were two separate sign systems.
Snowmobilers are most likely to notice that the black chevrons marking curves are gone this year. They were eliminated along with 10 other signs warning of deer crossings, drift areas, steep hills, bridges and truck traffic, among other things.
The chevrons pointed left or right and marked gradual curves. They were a cue for riders, who state officials say grew increasingly dependent on them and less focused on the trail.
“This is, by far, the most significant change,” Kennedy said. “People were riding the signs rather than the trail. They would keep their speed up and follow the signs rather than looking with their headlights and watching the trail closely.”
Wood is fond of saying: “If you mark it like a freeway they will drive it like a freeway.”
Sharp turns will now be marked with left or right arrows, according to Kennedy.
There will be fewer private drive signs as well. Snowmobilers will now see a single “Private Drives Ahead” sign that may be supplemented with plaque specifying the distance.
“We would have put up 40 signs last year for 10 drives in a mile,” Wood said. “Now we can put up one (in each direction) with supplemental #1 for one mile which says watch out for driveways for the next mile.”
The new sign system is lean, but Wood said many of the signs were unnecessary. Riders in woods and fields should know deer might be there. The curvy winding-trail sign had some riders confused.
“We had one message from a rider that said the sign curves don’t fit the trail,” Wood said.
The new approach is also expected to provide the state and local clubs that maintain trails with some relief from liability law suits. The growing proliferation of signs had fostered sign dependency, Wood said. Riders could race up long straightaways and rely on chevrons to boldly mark a curve ahead.
“We were signing more and more of the curves, but it is impossible to sign them all,” said Wood, also the president of the Jordan Valley Trail Council. “If you sign five of six curves and someone goes off the trail on six, when they get out of the hospital, they go and see a lawyer and say: ‘If they had signed that curve like the others I wouldn’t have gone off the trail.’
“So you have two options: sign every curve, which is impossible, or remove those signs on the curves.”
Email Howard Meyerson at firstname.lastname@example.org
This column appears on MLive Outdoors
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