Booze drives snowmobiles

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 April, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 April, 1997, 12:00am

Drinking and driving is not looked upon kindly by most American courts - unless you are driving a snowmobile, in which case you are in the clear.

Watching the Oscar-winning movie Fargo tends to create the impression that life in icy Minnesota passes at a snail's pace, and that the only excitement is the occasional bloody murder.

But there is plenty of almost-daily homicide taking place on the state's frozen tundras as mad snowmobilers zoom around at speeds of up to 160 kilometres an hour in a beery haze.

What is perhaps the United States' growing sport - there are now an incredible 1.3 million registered snowmobiles - is also becoming one of its most deadly pastimes. In the 10 snowy states that have the most snowmobilers, 535 people died in accidents in the past five years. And statistics show that around one in two of all the accidents last year had alcohol as a factor.

In Minnesota, where some 25,000 people are members of the state's snowmobiling association, the problem is most acute. A record 28 people died in snowmobile tragedies last year, and public outrage came to a head when a 10-year-old boy walking home on a quiet, snowbound street was killed after being thrown 30 metres by a mobile driven by a teenager going home after a day of bar-hopping.

There are two major problems: firstly, the fact that the nation's 160,000 km of designated snowmobiling trails rarely have speed limits, even though the average vehicle has the power of a Jeep and only a quarter of the weight; added to this is the boozy, macho culture surrounding the sport - no doubt because there are few laws which ban drinking and snowmobiling.

An undercover TV crew recently followed a group of upstate New York revellers bar-hopping by mobile, and interviewed one driver after he had swallowed his eighth rum-and-coke. His response was to jump on his mean machine and zoom off in double-time.

Another victim of the growing craze is the nation's endangered wildlife. Minnesotan snowmobilers have only just won a three-year court battle to be allowed back in one of the state's national parks, after officials banned them because the noise was said to be killing off rare eagles and timber wolves.

The state's legislature is now considering speed limits, curfews and alcohol bans for snowmobilers, as are other states. In the meantime, do not stray too far off the ski slopes.

It looks like New York's no-nonsense mayor Rudolf Giuliani has managed to spark more of a diplomatic incident than any number of Congressional insults to China's 'tyrants' or Mexico's drug-running politicians.

Rudy's Revenge has all to do with that rarest and most valuable of Manhattan commodities - parking.

United Nations envoys are using the most undiplomatic of epithets to describe the city's new law requiring all UN officials to pay their parking tickets like everybody else.

The blood between New York and the UN has turned so bad that one French member of the delegation last week suggested moving the behemoth bureaucracy to Geneva or Vienna.

Even though Mr Giuliani quietly added another 111 diplomatic parking spots to the city's existing 300, the UN officials are still not pleased. They say diplomatic immunity should extend to being allowed to park illegally.

But the mayor is adamant that all the 116,000 UN parking fines issued last year must not go unpaid.

Just take the example of Russia, which last year pulled in over 31,000 tickets - or 86 a day. And if anyone had any doubts that North Koreans have trouble adapting to Western bourgeois practices such as parking the car, those are surely dispelled by the staggering 2,297 tickets the Pyongyang mission earned in 1996. Considering that they only have five official cars, that is pretty good going.

Mr Giuliani originally decided to get tough when Belarus' ambassador to the UN wrote to him complaining of the rough treatment of one of his men by city cops investigating a traffic violation. The mayor replied that the Belarus mission should pay its outstanding parking fines before crying on his shoulder.

Of course, New Yorkers are delighted at seeing their mayor standing up to the foreign violators. By a strange coincidence, this is election year at City Hall.

We are not sure what this says about the deteriorating law-and-order situation in the nation's capital, but the most successful police officer on duty has a unique style.

Since Officer Reinhold Springirth started sitting in his patrol car on street corners in the Washington DC suburbs, local drivers have started behaving themselves.

Speeding has dramatically reduced, the number of accidents on a busy main road plummeted, and night-time car break-ins have stopped.

Not that Officer Springirth gets involved much. He does not eat doughnuts all day. All he does is sit in his car, staring out from behind dark glasses.

In fact, he does not even move. He is a shop dummy.

The mannequin-as-law enforcer may sound laughable, but has been tested in other hotspots in Connecticut and New York.