Water Hazards

Our View: Fatalities Suggest Tougher Life Jacket Standards Are In Order

August 06, 2009

Maryland Natural Resources Police Cpl. Jeff Sweitzer was patrolling Deep Creek Lake in the early morning hours last Saturday when he saw a fast-moving boat speed dangerously close to a fishing boat. He took up pursuit and soon encountered a man in the water screaming for help.

Turns out, the terrified swimmer had fallen off the speeding boat intoxicated, disoriented and without a life jacket. The operator of the boat never noticed. If not for the officer's intervention, the 23-year-old Montgomery Countian might have drowned.

Such incidents are a big reason why Maryland's boating season could turn out to be the deadliest in four years. So far in 2009, 10 people have died in boating-related incidents. That's already one more than last year and there are still three months left in the boating season.

While the state has endured much worse fatality rates as recently as 2005, the numbers should be a cause for concern. Police have investigated enough near-drownings this year to suggest that only law enforcement vigilance (and perhaps luck) have kept the fatality rate from climbing much higher still.

What can be done about it? More Maryland boaters need to wear life jackets, particularly children. Under current state law, only children under age 7 on a boat that is 21-feet-long or shorter are required to wear an appropriate personal flotation device.

Wearing life jackets in boats ought to be regarded as the equivalent of wearing seat belts on the roads. Their effect is much the same. According to U.S. Coast Guard statistics, 90 percent of boating accident drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket.

DNR officials say they are considering asking the Maryland General Assembly to raise the standard for life jacket use next year so that all youngsters under age 13 must wear them. That action is overdue. It's already the federal standard - and the standard held by most states.

Regulations alone are not the answer, however - many boating accidents involve reckless behavior beyond the failure to wear a life jacket. Personal responsibility among boaters must also come into the equation. Inattention, careless behavior by the operator or passengers, speeding and alcohol use are also considered major factors in accidents. People must be made to understand that boating can be as perilous as driving on land and should not be taken lightly.

Maryland already requires most boaters to complete an 8-hour safety course. That requirement has proven helpful, but the burden is still on boaters to act responsibly on the water. That should start with wearing a life jacket whether those on board are age 7 or 77 or in-between.

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