The snowmobile hand signal debate has raged on for the past few decades. While some organizations endorse snowmobile hand signals to communicate, others argue that you should never take your hands of the handlebars.
A few winters back I was out on snowmobile patrol in Pillsbury State Park in Washington. It was a busy holiday weekend with plenty of sled traffic. As I rounded a bend on the Mad Road (Trail 391), I watched as the third machine in a long series of machines, riding in the opposite direction, failed to negotiate the bend and came right at me. Their left hand was in the air holding up four fingers. With little time to react, I stood up and lifted my left leg over to the right side of my sled bracing for the impact. Sure enough, the snowmobile slammed into my machine with its left ski impacting my left running board.
Snowmobile Hand Signal Law?
Miraculously I had lifted my left leg in time and did not suffer any injury. The operator of the other snowmobile also did not suffer any physical injury. They did, however, suffer a bruised ego, as well as possible hearing loss after I finished expressing my displeasure with their reckless riding style. After I composed myself, I commenced to writing that operator a ticket for Operating to Endanger. Once I issued the ticket, the rider informed me that he thought it was a law in New Hampshire to use hand signals while riding! After several deep breaths, I educated that operator that he was incorrect.
How did this accident happen? That other rider thought he needed to use hand signals. He took one hand off the handlebars in an attempt to tell other riders how many snowmobiles were behind him in his group. In doing so, he could not turn his machine into the bend in the trail with one hand and lost control of the machine. As I type this and recall that day I can feel my blood pressure rising. Where do I begin in detailing how dangerous using hand signals while snowmobiling is? How can anyone think it is a good idea to take a hand off of your handlebars, while operating, in order to tell oncoming riders how many people are behind you?! You do not know how many actual machines are behind you! More importantly, the oncoming riders do not care!!
Always Anticipate Riders on Trail
If you have snowmobiled for more than a day you have seen riders give you hand signals. You have also seen riders give you a hand signal, “two fingers” for example, only to watch as seven, eight, or nine snowmobiles come riding up behind them. What good did it do anyone to know that two of them were with that rider who gave the “two fingers”? They are obviously trying to tell you that there are two more riders in their group. But how or why does that matter? Nobody knows how many snowmobiles are behind the riders in their group. Anyone who rides snowmobiles should always anticipate other riders on the trail and around every bend because inevitably there will be. What I find even more ridiculous is the rider operating a machine, usually with mirrors, who holds up a fist to signal that he/she is the last one in their group while several snowmobiles are riding behind them.
Snowmobile Hand Signal Debate
No doubt some of you reading this will disagree. It was the way you were taught. True but the sport has changed dramatically since those days. The origins of these hand signals are rooted in the early days (1960s – 1970s) of snowmobiling when trails were just being created and snowmobiles were much slower and smaller. The riding style of those days is often referred to as the “feet forward, butts back” style of riding. Those days are long gone. Today’s snowmobiles are much bigger, heavier, quicker, and much more responsive. They require an active riding style or “ride forward” style. More importantly, they require both hands on the handlebar grips.
Now I know many folks use directional hand signals (right turn, left turn, etc.) while riding. Those are different than the more commonly used hand signals I am describing. Although for safety reasons, I would much rather all riders keep both hands on their handlebars, keep proper spacing, and ride defensively.
What about signal lights? Those are the yellow and green lights that can be put on the left handlebar grip to use in place of hand signals. Yes these lights are designed so the rider keeps both hands on the handlebars but they are still “telling” riders that there is or is not another machine behind them.
Just imagine that you are the last rider in a group of three. You put your signal light on green because you are the last one in your group. Now another group of sleds comes along behind you….what good does that green light do for oncoming riders? That simply gives oncoming riders a false sense of what is coming. The truth is nobody really knows what is coming. Always anticipate other snowmobiles on the trail!
Please Keep Your Hands On for Safety!
In a way this is similar to the issue of texting while driving and the solution is also the same; stop communicating, ride defensively, pay attention, and enjoy your ride!