Sudden Deaths of People at Play

June 29, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace -- Summer's here, and the inevitable seasonal tragedies are unfolding once again. Drownings, heat stroke, the stings of killer bees, poison ivy -- everywhere you turn, perils new and old are claiming more victims.

It's especially poignant that so many of these are innocents at play. For when vacation season arrives, the waters, the mountains and the highways all beckon seductively. Energetic people by the thousands seek new and exciting experiences, and inevitably, a few of them make fatal mistakes.

In the United States, of the roughly 100,000 accidental deaths recorded each year, only about half occur on the highways. The others might take place anywhere, but a large proportion of them, especially in summer, are recreation-related.

Although it isn't even July yet, it's already been an unusually gruesome accident season. First, a local teen-ager, doing what local teen-agers have done for generations, jumped off a bridge into the Susquehanna River. But he jumped in the wrong place, or in the wrong way. In any event, he drowned.

More bizarre were the deaths of two people operating the floating motorcycles known as ''personal watercraft'' -- a top-heavy bureaucratic name as absurd as the overpowered machines themselves. Yet these two accidents, stunningly senseless as they were, couldn't have come as surprises to anyone who has watched personal watercrafters giving new meaning to the old phrase ''accidents waiting to happen.''

Off Port Deposit, a husband and wife, joy-riding on two high-powered machines, ran into one another head-on. The wife was killed instantly. In a separate accident on the Gunpowder, also apparently caused by operator error, another watercrafter lost his life. Those victims were both drivers, but it's surely only a matter of time until bystanders are lost, too.

As the summer-recreation casualty lists grow, some of us see pathos and perhaps a touch of irony in the sudden deaths of people at play. But others see, above all else, opportunity.

Any accidental death, especially when it involves expensive machinery manufactured by a large corporation, quickens the pulses of plaintiffs' lawyers and regulation-minded politicians. By capitalizing on the pain and suffering of accident victims and their survivors, the lawyers seek enrichment, the pols publicity and power.

To these birds, as to maggots and turkey buzzards, death means life. They begin to gather before the bodies are cold, taking testimony from witnesses and sizing up the assets of potential defendants. The more horrible or unusual the accident, the faster they arrive, and the quicker the lawsuits and legislation get drafted.

In addition to the bridge jumper and the watercraft victims, we lost another local man recently when his boat sank in Tangier Sound while he was on a fishing trip. And a local child died when the swing set she was playing on tipped over on her.

Then, around the same time, a 12-year-old died in Ocean City when a hole he and some friends had dug in the sand collapsed on him. There was no local angle to that incident, but it gave the shivers to all of us who've taken kids to the seashore and watched them set off with shovel and pail.

Life, news reports of such events implicitly remind us, isn't risk-free. The most commonplace things can kill us. Something ought to be done about that, no doubt, but what?

Should we have our faithful legislators ban personal watercraft, or limit their power? How about restricting the use of shovels on the beach? Summers would be safer if we required regular inspections of all swing sets, stationed lifeguards under all bridges, and made all boaters -- not just kids -- wear life jackets.

There's no question that many recreational activities are inherently unsafe. Frequently that's part of their appeal. And while it's true that they can be made safer by education or regulation, risks can't ever be completely eliminated. The film star Christopher Reeve was a competent horseman wearing all the approved safety gear, but he still broke his neck when he had a bad fall.

In the past, many of us have been dubious about proposals to require boaters to obtain licenses. The idea of the state of Maryland deciding who gets to go in a canoe, a small sailboat or a skiff with a five-horse motor is fundamentally offensive. On the other hand, formal and informal efforts to educate boaters have been useful and generally well received.

If there is a case to be made for licensing, the personal watercraft epidemic, which frequently puts high-powered machines on the public waterways with nitwits at the controls, certainly makes it. But no legislative action is expected soon; most of the power structure's at the beach, which should make it a safer summer for the rest of us.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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