OFSC INSIGHT: Help Protect Snowmobiling

Last winter a couple from Quebec apparently traveled out of bounds while alpine skiing in B.C. The woman died and her husband reportedly sued many groups. That included a local volunteer search and rescue team, who promptly suspended operations until concerns about liability insurance coverage were resolved.

However, if any volunteers are ultimately held even partially liable, then the ramifications could be negative, far-reaching and long-term. The extensive media coverage of this incident caught the attention of volunteer organizations everwhere. Its impact could extend beyond search and rescue volunteers to anyone that selflessly donates their time and talent to do the best possible job for the greater good.

So what does this have to do with snowmobiling? Your ability to continue trail riding in Ontario depends on volunteers who donate their time and talents. It also depends on the willingness of private and public landowners to voluntarily allow snowmobile trails on their property. And it depends on the OFSC being able to continually access affordable liability insurance to protect our volunteers, clubs, landowners, trails and the federation itself.

Protection from whom, you ask? From snowmobilers, that’s who. Just as with the aforementioned skiers, what if a claim filed by a snowmobiler against one OFSC club scared off our volunteers (or turned off our landowners or contributed to unaffordable insurance costs)? Who would do such a thing?

We have our share of overly aggressive risk-takers whose pushing the envelope, breaking the law, riding off trail or succumbing to peer pressure can quickly get them into self-induced trouble.

On rare occasions, a normally responsible rider might even have a momentary lapse or make one foolish choice. All these folks make their own decisions to behave in a certain way, and sometimes, albeit very rarely, that ends in tragedy.

Rather than shouldering the blame and taking full responsibility for their own mistaken actions, a few of these unfortunates may look around for a supposedly easy target to sue. Or maybe they’ve killed themselves and their families are demanding to be taken care of.

As the stats prove, It doesn’t seem to matter that the so-called “victim” was likely going way too fast, may have consumed alcohol, was not riding an open OFSC trail, or may not have been wearing a helmet. It doesn’t matter that he (and it is typically a “he”) made a personal and possibly illegal choice and chose wrong. It doesn’t matter that he went snowmobiling willingly, of his own free choice and at his own risk.

No, suddenly confronted with the financial consequences of his own unwise behaviour, the search is on for someone else to pay. One target is sometimes a local OFSC member snowmobile club – with little thought about the possible long-term ramifications of such a claim.

What these riders don’t realize is that in fingering an OFSC member club, they are trying to blame all the volunteers who generously donate their time and effort towards providing them with trails to ride. In doing so, claimants put the future of snowmobiling at grave risk.

Earlier this decade, OFSC snowmobiling on trails maintained by OFSC clubs teetered on the edge of extinction thanks to a soaring liability premium. To save organized snowmobiling, the OFSC embarked on the most rigorous and comprehensive self-examination ever undertaken by any trails organization.

The outcome was a first of its kind risk management program that is now an industry model for how to proactively manage risk for recreational trails. It helps provide our member clubs with the liability insurance protection our volunteers need to operate trails…and now the OFSC is much better positioned to aggressively protect our volunteers, clubs and landowners.

So what does all this mean to and for you, the snowmobiler? First, you will have trails to ride for a long time to come. Second, you need to know exactly how you are expected to behave on OFSC trails. Third, the responsibility for your own riding habits and choices is clearly yours and yours alone — if you cannot accept this then the OFSC does does not want you on our trails. And fourth, if you do get yourself into trouble while snowmobiling on or off OFSC trails as a result of your own illegal or foolish behaviour, leave the OFSC out of it because we will fight tooth and nail to protect our volunteers, clubs and landowners, and so we can to keep our trails open for the continued enjoyment of all OFSC snowmobilers.

To help protect snowmobiling, snowmobilers have to draw a line in the snow that we will not cross. We must take personal responsibility for our decisions and actions, while accepting and being accountable for the consequences.

We must accept the fact that our recreational activity takes place in a non-engineered, unpredictable and uncontrollable wilderness setting. In this context, OFSC trail signage is offered as a courtesy and convenience; it is not a legislated right or expectation.

Trail grooming is subject to nature, varying conditions and limited financial and human resources. While snowmobiling in this off-road setting, riders must always exercise caution, with the expectation that some unknown hazard may be just over the next hump or around the next bend. It may be wildlife on the trail; blown down branches; recently exposed stumps or rocks; or even another sled on the trail. If you can’t accept these realities, then stick to driving a car on engineered roadways.

If you do choose to ride OFSC trails this winter, take care of yourself: get trained, get insured, always ride with care and control, and make the smart choice for Zero Alcohol. Most of all, don’t snowmobile with any expectation that the OFSC should or will pay for any mess you get yourself into, on trail or off. Get used to it: you are your own safety net; so if you have a problem, there’s only one place to look for blame and for payment: your mirror!

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