Tragedy Shows Why Life Jackets Should Be Required


March 31, 1991|By Edward H. Shur

Last Sunday, David Leppo did what many fathers do: He decided to spend time with his son.

So the 53-year-old Sykesville man and his 23-year-old son Andy took a canoe out in a channel of the Liberty Reservoir. They planned a pleasant day of quiet fishing.

Unfortunately, the day ended in tragedy when the canoe was caughtby a strong wind and flipped over, plunging the two men into the bitterly cold water.

Two nearby fishermen were able to rescue the son. He was taken to Baltimore County General Hospital, where he was treated for hypothermia and released.

His father was not so fortunate. The fisherman did not see where the elder Leppo went under the surface, in an area where the channel is about 120 feet deep.

A helicopter and divers were called to search the frigid channel. Though hampered by not knowing where the victim fell in, rescue workers pulled his body from the reservoir just after noon Tuesday, after two days ofsearching.

Mr. Leppo's death is tragic, and condolences are extended to his family and friends.

But what's especially sad is that neither man was wearing a life jacket.

They weren't required to. Maryland has no law forcing boaters to wear theirife jackets. The only legal requirement is that life jackets be "readily accessible."

Why isn't the wearing of life jackets mandatory -- especially when police say that, in most boating accidents, drowning deaths could have been prevented if the victims had been wearing their life jackets?

"Life jackets are like seat belts," said Cpl. Ralph Parker, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Police. "If you don't use them, they don't work."

Parker's analogy is right on target. The problem with life jackets is the same one that drew heated debate not that many yearsago when discussing seat belts.

Seat belts hit the market, but only a small percentage of motorists purchased them. Ironically, even after spending money to buy and install the life savers, few used themregularly.

Thousands of people died each year on our highways, and many of those lives could have been saved if the victims had

been wearing seat belts. Thousands more suffered serious and crippling injuries, and many of those would have been less severe had seat beltsbeen worn.

After years of arguments, laws were enacted mandating that seat belts be installed in new vehicles. But just like the law requiring life jackets to be "readily accessible," lawmakers couldn't -- make that wouldn't -- go a step further and legislate usage.

Finally, a few years ago, Maryland's legislators passed such a law. It was a watered-down bill -- but it was a start.

The weak points arethat motorists can be cited for violations only when they already have been stopped for another infraction and the officer notices the driver and front-seat passengers aren't belted in. Also, back-seat passengers aren't covered.

Since that law was passed, police reports show dramatic increases in seat belt compliance. Westminster police, for example, have been honored several times for their enforcement efforts.

Traffic fatalities also have declined, as have injuries fromaccidents. And of the accidents that result in serious injuries and deaths, often the victims were not belted in.

So why don't our lawmakers take similar measures and pass legislation requiring the use of life jackets? Natural Resources police could be empowered to enforce the law and issue violators tickets.

True, that's still not going to guarantee that every boater puts on a life jacket, any more thanthe seat belt law means everyone will buckle up. And, true, we can'thave government looking over our shoulders 24 hours a day.

But the sad fact is that often a nudge isn't enough to make us change our ways -- we need a big shove.

What's your opinion? We'd like to know. Please write: Letters to the editor or Guest columns, The Carroll County Sun, 15 E. Main St., Sherwood Square, Westminster, Md. 21157-5052. Fax : 876-0233.

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