Snowmobiling Under the Influence

With all the snow in the Midwest, snowmobile traffic has increased and towns all over are seeing an influx in visitors from snowmobilers looking for fresh trails. While a snowmobile is often viewed as a fun “toy”, it’s also a motor vehicle and is subject to many of the same laws you would be expected to follow if you were driving a car.

One of the largest factors in fatal snowmobile crashes is alcohol. Alcohol and drugs have a negative effect on the driver’s vision, balance, coordination, and reaction time. A snowmobile can weigh over 600 pounds and travel at speeds exceeding 90 mph, so it’s important to have your wits about you.

Snowmobiling under the influence (SWI) laws and regulations are heavily enforced but citations can be avoided if you have the right information. Here are some of the commonly asked questions about snowmobiling laws.

Can I have alcohol on my snowmobile?

The open bottle law applies to motor vehicles-including snowmobiles-on public roads, regardless of whether the vehicle is in motion. The open bottle law prohibits both drivers and passengers from consuming or possessing an open container of alcohol in a vehicle that is on a public roadway or shoulder of a roadway that is not part of a designated snowmobile trail.

Do police enforce laws against snowmobile operators drinking? If so, how?

Police officers, conservation officers, state troopers, deputy sheriffs and other peace officers do enforce these laws. Law enforcement can stop, inspect, and test snowmobilers for sobriety in the same manner they do in roadside checks on state highways. These often include preliminary breath and field sobriety tests. Some states do not even require probable cause to do so.

Operators who are suspected to be impaired may be required to submit to tests by an enforcement officer to determine the presence of these substances. There is a separate additional criminal penalty for refusal to submit to these tests, and the person’s snowmobiling privileges may be suspended for one year upon refusal. SWI convictions and refusals are recorded on the violator’s driver’s license record and effect their driver’s license privileges.

It’s also important to understand the laws for the region where you are snowmobiling. For example, under Wisconsin law, by operating a snowmobile on areas open to the public, you have automatically consented to provide a sample of your breath, blood or urine to any officer who requests the test.

What are the consequences?

The consequences of an SWI are like those of a DWI. An operator who is found impaired or has an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more, can be charged with a misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor, or felony level DWI. People convicted of a misdemeanor could: be fined up to $1,000; sentenced to jail time; and/or suffer loss of snowmobile operating privileges for up to one year.

Additional penalties may apply if the person has any prior DWI convictions, has an alcohol concentration of twice the legal limit, or has a child under 16 years of age with them on the snowmobile. Penalties include: up to $3,000 fine with longer mandatory jail time; forfeiture of the snowmobile; if a person has 3 or more DWI convictions or revocations in the last 10 years, or has prior felony convictions, they can be sentenced to 3-7 years in jail, up to $14,000 fine, or both, and longer license revocations also could be imposed.

These convictions can further effect your snowmobile and car insurance rates, making you a more high risk driver if you are charged or convicted of a crime involving alcohol. If you are a commercial driver, the consequences could be devastating.

How can I avoid these charges?

First and foremost, avoid alcohol while operating your snowmobile. You can also avoid charges by knowing the area’s snowmobile laws and regulations, making sure everyone on your snowmobile follows the safety rules, and by taking courses on safe snowmobiling.

If you find yourself charged with an SWI, speaking with an attorney immediately is the best course of action. Questions about SWI or other traffic charges can be directed to our legal team here.