Vilas Co. yet to have a snowmobile death as fatal crashes happen across state; county takes pride in new programsSubmitted: 02/11/2019
Ben Meyer
Ben Meyer
Managing Editor / Senior Reporter

Vilas Co. yet to have a snowmobile death as fatal crashes happen across state; county takes pride in new programs
EAGLE RIVER - Snowmobile crashes killed five people in Wisconsin over the weekend, bringing this winter's number of deaths to 14.

Surprisingly, none of those deaths have come in Vilas Co. It's had at least one death in four straight winters, and has led the state in snowmobile injuries each of the last four years on record.

But Vilas Co. is hoping those streak will end.

Taverns in the area might be part of the solution.

Buckshot's Saloon north of Eagle River sits just across from a Vilas Co. snowmobile trail. It's an official trail pit stop, welcoming snowmobilers in.

"Last week and this week, we're seeing everybody. The trails are in great shape," said owner Dan Ullsperger.

Ullsperger looks forward to snowmobilers coming for a bite and a drink, but he also looks for signs that riders shouldn't be riding.

"How are they walking? How are they talking? The conversation, are they slurring words?" he said.

Ullsperger helped start the Vilas Co. Tavern League's SafeRide program two years ago, offering free taxi rides for inebriated drivers and riders. In 2017, the last year DNR statistics were available, 4 in 5 snowmobile deaths had alcohol involved.

"If you're choosing to consume intoxicants, please be responsible," said Vilas Co. Sheriff's Capt. Gerry Ritter.

Ritter said Vilas Co. has had some close calls this winter, but no deaths yet. He credits a trail numbering system as one safety improvement.

"Dispatch will have an exact location where the incident is, which helps emergency responders get to the scene a lot faster than they used to," Ritter said.

Numbering systems, education, and sheer luck have played into the state's gradual drop in snowmobile deaths in the past decade-plus.

So has a 55-mile-per-hour nighttime speed limit, which went into effect shortly after 37 people died in 2005.

Ullsperger wants the business from riders, but also wants the death number to be zero.

"I don't care if you're riding a snowmobile, UTV, ATV in the summertime, or getting in a car, if you're inebriated and I see it, I'm going to do everything I can to not have you get in that vehicle and drive it home," he said.

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