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Too young to drive?
Anchorage Daily News


January 25, 2007

WASILLA, Alaska -- Joshua Smith, 7, was riding a powerful snowmobile made for an adult-size rider when he lost control and crashed Jan. 13.

The little boy died the next day.



His death raises difficult questions in a part of the state where young children riding big snowmobiles is a fairly common sight:

How young is too young? At what age should children be allowed to ride adult machines that go from 0 to 60 mph faster than some cars?

The answer depends on whom you ask. No laws in Alaska govern children and snowmachines. Five years ago, legislators exempted four-wheelers and snowmachines from a law requiring drivers of any motorized vehicle to be at least 16 years old.

So, basically, decisions about children on snowmobiles are up to their parents.

That part of the equation sometimes leaves authorities scratching their heads.

"A parent wouldn't think about turning a kid loose in a car, yet they think nothing of turning 'em loose on a snowmachine that'll go 80 mph, 90 mph," said Alaska State Troopers Sgt. Mark Agnew. "These machines are designed for adults at 150 pounds plus. You put a 70-pound kid, a 60-pound kid on there, and they're just rockets."

Snowmachine dealers say they typically recommend 16 as the minimum age for driving an adult-size snowmachine.

Snowmobile manufacturers produce mini-machines with reduced horsepower for young riders, including the Arctic Cat 120, which tops out at 8 mph, and the Ski-Doo Mini Z.

Alex and Andy Schwochert were just 2 when they first rode snowmachines. Actually, Andy was just shy of his second birthday.

"The adults had to keep kicking his skis to make sure he went in a circle," said John Schwochert, the boys' grandfather, who raised them in Wasilla.

The boys, who are also auto-racing champs at North Star Speedway, have never suffered a bad crash, their grandfather said. He said that's because they gained years of experience by starting so early, and were raised to ride safely at all times.

Both started out on low-horsepower youth snowmachines, riding adult-sized sleds only under supervision.

Their grandfather badgered them from the start, he said: Don't out-race your headlights in the dark, slow down a quarter-mile out, don't go fast unless you're in familiar terrain and away from hazards, dress for the worst weather.

So what would happen if Grandpa caught one of them speeding?

"I would lose my keys," Andy said. "I would lose all my gas money for a while."

As strongly as the Schwochert family feels about starting young, safety advocates press just as passionately for age limits.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 16 not operate snowmobiles and that children under age 6 never ride on snowmobiles, according to the group's Web site.

Between 1999 and 2003, children up to age 15 sustained an average of 22 snowmachine-related injuries a year, according to Martha Moore at the Alaska Trauma Registry. Nearly 14 percent of the injuries occurred in the Matanuska-Sustitna Valley, making the rate of injuries to youths here 38 percent higher than the statewide rate.

In the Valley it's common to see children on their parents' snowmachines, authorities say.

The newer, more powerful machines ride more smoothly than ever, diminishing the sense of speed, said Agnew.

"As the technology advances, the machines are getting lighter, faster," Agnew said. "It's not uncommon to see young kids on snowmachines that have more horsepower than some automobiles."

Joshua Smith was riding a 600cc Ski-Doo as he headed toward Wolverine Lodge on Lake Louise about 11 p.m. on Jan. 13, according to witness accounts and trooper reports. He was in a group with his father and a friend.

One witness said all three were about 100 feet from the lodge and going about 25 mph when the boy cut in front of two other riders, goosed the throttle and sped out of control into a berm marking the lodge's dock.

On populated lakes like Lake Louise and Big Lake, new berms can pop up within hours, said Todd Palin, a three-time winner of the Iron Dog snowmachine race and husband of Gov. Sarah Palin.

The Palins started daughter Piper, 5, on an adult-size machine at 3-1/2, Todd Palin said. He rode behind her, showing her how to work the brake and the throttle with his hands next to hers. Piper drives now on open flat areas; Dad takes over in the trees.

His own personal opinion is that what happened to Joshua could have happened to anyone.

"A lot of parents spend a lot of time on safety," he said. "This young man, he could have had all kinds of hours with his parents. It's just one of those incidents - lakes are very dangerous, especially populated lakes, and people have to be very careful."


Contact Daily News reporter Zaz Hollander at zhollander(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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Ketchikan, Alaska