Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

Fatal Mindsets: the Psychology Behind Dangerous Behavior

Fatal Mindsets: the Psychology Behind Dangerous Behavior

Horrifying news this past week from Vermont, where two adults and a three-year-old girl died when snowmobiles they were riding on broke through the ice on a frozen lake. From the AP report:

The snowmobiles were carrying six people on Lake Dunmore when the accident occurred about 100 yards from shore at about noon Saturday. Five people went into the water and were later pulled out by rescue crews. A 4-year-old was pushed to safety before the snowmobile he was riding went through the ice. Kevin Flynn, 50, Carrie Flynn, 24, both of Whiting, and 3-year-old Bryanna Popp, of Brandon, were pronounced dead at Porter Hospital in nearby Middlebury.

The article notes that three other adults have died in Vermont in snowmobile accidents within the span of the last month. While that string of fatalities might be down to a statistical anomaly, or just bad luck, there's no denying that snowmobilers face an outsized risk of fatality. Last winter in Michigan, for instance, 1 out of every 10,000 registered snowmobilers had a fatal accident. That's a rate 25 times higher than for skiing and snowboarding. To put it another way, as I pointed out in an article about avalanches in Popular Mechanics, snowmobilers make up more than half of all avalanche deaths. So is it the machines that are dangerous, or the people who ride them?

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Both. While researching the topic I had a fascinating discussion with Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, who told me that he believed the reason that snowmobilers get into so much trouble is that their machines let them. "Machines are powerful enough now, and the riders are good enough, that they can get onto avalanche slopes that they could never have reached 10 or 15 years ago," Chabot told me. What's more, they can hit more slopes in a given day. It's like pulling playing Russian Roulette and pulling the trigger over and over. Add in other wintertime risks like thin ice, and the potential for trouble grows.

Add to that a feeling of immortality that young, outdoorsy people often feel, and it's not surprising that things can go horribly wrong. I also talked with avalanche survivor Jason Crawford, who lost two friends in a slide in the Big Belt mountains of Montana. "We all knew that it was bad avalanche conditions," he told me. In fact, one of his friends had personally witnessed a slide on the very slope that they were caught on, a sure sign that it was potentially fatal ground. "But we kind of thought we were invincible, you know?"

A third factor: alcohol. Two thirds of all Wisconsin fatalities last winter were inebriated.

The fact that snowmobilers have a powerful, fast machine between their legs should not give them an unrealistic sense of invulnerability. The backwoods in winter are filled with dangers. Being able to move quickly reduces some risks but compounds others. Some environments can never be considered completely safe. But being aware of the dangers, and respectful of them, is the only way to maximize your odds of coming home alive.

Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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