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Boaters reminded to buckle up, forget the beer (06/30/2004)
At least 80 percent of the victims of fatal boating accidents would have survived had they been wearing their life jackets, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

"It happens time and time again," said Tim Smalley, DNR boating safety specialist. "The boat is found drifting empty in the lake. In among the fishing gear on the bottom of the boat is an unworn life jacket. The victim probably thought that since he was a good swimmer, he didn't need to wear it when boating in fair weather."

As of June 28, Minnesota boating deaths stand at eight, which is six ahead of last year and two ahead of the 2002 toll at this time.

According to DNR records, most boating accident victims are males in their 30s with some swimming ability. The boats are small (16 feet or less) with motors less than 40 horsepower or no motors at all. Of the eight 2004 fatalities so far, three were in non-powered canoes and two were falls overboard from pontoon boats.

"I think what surprises people about fatal boating accidents is they aren't fiery high-speed collisions between high-powered boats," Smalley said. "It is often a simple capsizing or fall overboard. The person stands up to move around in the boat, loses balance, and topples into the water or capsizes the boat."

As the victim's head goes under water, the sudden shock of entering the water causes them to gasp and aspirate water into their lungs. If they aren't wearing a life jacket, drowning is the most common outcome.

Lack of enough life jackets or not enough flotation devices is one of the most common boating law citations written by DNR conservation officers and sheriff's deputies.

"I don't think the people mean to be unsafe, but in the excitement to get out on the water to fish or ski or just cruise, they forget to make sure there are enough life jackets of the proper size and type in the boat," Smalley said. "Or if they do have flotation devices, they don't put them on."

The Minnesota life jacket law changed several years ago. Where once a boater's flotation seat cushion fulfilled legal requirements, now each person in the boat needs to have a U.S. Coast Guard approved Type I, II, III or V wearable Personal Flotation Device (PFD or life jacket) on board. The life vest must also be the proper size for the person intended and readily accessible. For boats 16 feet and longer, except canoes and kayaks, there must also be one Type IV boaters' flotation seat cushion or ring buoy in the boat.

"Readily accessible means that they have to be easy to reach in time of an emergency," Smalley said. "A life vest that is zipped into a case or still in the plastic wrapper is not considered accessible in the eyes of the law."

And it is much smarter to be wearing a life vest rather than just shoving it under the boat seat. Smalley said that putting on a life jacket when a boat accident is imminent would be like trying to put on a seatbelt in the split second before a car crash.

"Boating accidents usually happen without warning, so you have to be wearing a live vest all the time to be safe," Smalley noted. "You could fill a warehouse with the life jackets that were hanging unused on the back of a boat seat because the boater thought there would be some warning before an accident."

A life vest must be warn by the operator and passengers of a personal watercraft, (commonly known as jet skis, wave runners, etc.). Federal law requires youth under 13 to wear a life jacket in recreational vessels underway on federal waterways unless inside an enclosure such as cabin cruisers or below decks.


According to the DNR, the other big problem in boating safety is alcohol. Boating while intoxicated has been unlawful for years, yet there are still more than 100 arrests for that offense every year.

"People who would never think of drinking and driving a car will grab a cooler full of beer and empty it in the course of an afternoon's boat outing," Smalley said. "I guess they don't understand that drinking and operating a boat can be more dangerous than driving a car. Sometimes they wind up hurting themselves and others around them."

The July Fourth weekend often brings several non-boat-related drownings, too.

"So far there have been 13 drownings, and summer has really just started," Smalley said. "People really need to pay close attention to their children when they are near the water and everyone should always swim with a responsible buddy."

DNR conservation officers and county sheriff's deputies will be on the water in full force over the long July Fourth weekend, enforcing the boating while intoxicated and other safety laws.

"If people would only wear their life jackets and avoid alcohol when they are boating, Minnesota waters would be considerably safer and there would be more people alive at the end of the summer," Smalley said. 


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