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Canada Snowmobiling most dangerous outdoor winter sport, report says

They are loud, powerful and occasionally deadly.

Snowmobiles are responsible for nearly three times the number of severe injuries caused by skiing or snowboarding -- the country's other favourite snow-related pastimes -- the Canadian Institute for Health Information says.

According to data released by the institute yesterday, the first compiled nationally on snowmobile injuries, 92 people were admitted to hospital during the winter of 2000-2001 after being severely hurt while riding a snowmobile.

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That accounted for 16 per cent of all severe recreational injuries that year. By comparison, downhill skiing caused 6 per cent of serious mishaps and snowboarding caused 5 per cent.

The snowmobiling injuries tended to be more acute than those incurred while taking part in the other two sports.

Deaths attributable to the vehicles fluctuate annually, mainly as a result of snow and ice conditions.

The CIHI report looks only at the top 10 per cent of the most serious injuries among people sent to hospital, said Greg Webster, the manager of clinical registries for the institute.

"To enter the top 10 per cent of that group, you typically have multiple trauma, often a head injury, internal injuries, as well as multiple fractures. A small percentage of these people die in hospital, and a portion have long-term disabilities."

Snowmobile injuries occur most often to young adult men -- the average age of those hurt is 33 -- and about a quarter of all victims have been drinking.

"Studies have shown that alcohol often plays a role in these injuries, as does high speed," Mr. Webster said. ". . . They are very powerful machines. They go very quickly and the rider doesn't have any real protection."

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Sometimes, snowmobile riders do all the right things but are injured anyway. Emma Bayliffe of Whistler, B.C., is in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down, the result of a snowmobiling accident when she was 23.

Ms. Bayliffe and her boyfriend, Joe Noonan, were snowmobiling on the Pemberton Ice Cap in British Columbia on Boxing Day, 1996.

"I was on a frozen lake," she said yesterday. "It had a three-foot downgrade. The light was flat, and I didn't see the landscape change and I just went off the edge."

Ms. Bayliffe had a rescue pack on her back containing a shovel, a probe and a blanket.

"We're not sure if the shovel knocked my back out or if the Skidoo hit my back," she said. But her legs did not move after her body flipped off the machine.

Today, she sees the same man, but much else in her life has changed dramatically. The couple run Access Sea to Sky Ventures, a Whistler company that designs recreational holidays for people with physical disabilities and rents equipment to the disabled.

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"I wouldn't rate myself as an excellent snowmobiler by any stretch of the imagination, but we had everything with us that we needed," she said. "I just put it down to bad luck."

In most jurisdictions, permits are required to take the machines on trails. Most dealers ensure that buyers know something about driving snowmobiles, said Dave Campbell, general manager of the Canadian Council of Snowmobile Associations. But in many places, a person could buy a snowmobile in the afternoon and drive it that night, he said.

FUN'S OVER

How snowmobiling compares with other outdoor activities, both winter and summer, as a cause of severy injury. It is the most hazardous winter activity, CIHI reports. Severe injury figures are Canadawide for 2000-2001.

Activity.....................Number of cases

Cycling............................159

Snowmobiling.......................137

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All-terrain vehicle................109

Downhill skiing.....................53

Dirt biking/mini bikes/motocross....47

Horseback riding....................47

Snowboarding........................43

SOURCE: CANADIAN INSTITUTE FOR HEALTH INFORMATION

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