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Wear a personal floatation device

August 3, 2012
The Daily News

The Upper Peninsula and northeastern Wisconsin are blessed with outstanding water resources and where you have water, you have boats.

Unfortunately, where you have boats, you also have boating accidents. But just a few common-sense precautions could make boating much safer.

What's the single simplest thing you can do to make boating safer? Wear your personal floatation device (PFD).

That's been the mantra of the National Safe Boating Council for years, one with which the Michigan Department of Natural Resources fully agrees.

Most boaters are aware that the law requires they have an appropriate personal floatation device for everyone on board.

But unless you are less than six years old, the law does not require that you wear them. And too many people opt out.

"People have them, but they're stuffed under a seat somewhere and they don't think about them until they're in the water," said Lt. Andrew Turner, boating safety administrator with the Michigan DNR's Law Enforcement Division. "When things go terribly wrong there's no time to find them."

"Most people think about those big, bulky orange things when they think about personal floatation devices, but the technology has changed dramatically," Turner said in a statement. "The newer designs, thinner vests and inflatable PFDs, are a lot less bulky, more comfortable and they don't get in your way."

Boating safety has improved in recent years with a big drop in fatalities - 25 in 2010, down from 36 in 2010. Still, of the fatalities recorded last year, 20 of them were from drowning and 11 of those occurred simply because someone fell out of the boat.

Wearing PFDs could cut those fatalities dramatically.

"A common occurrence is that people, for a variety of reasons, get out of their unanchored boat and then it is blown away by the wind or carried away by currents and they can't get back to it," Turner said. "Many people drown this way each year and it's a tragedy that is very preventable."

One recent development that could help is the inflatable belt-pack PFD. They are easy to wear around the waist and do not interfere with movement.

"It's out of the way and comfortable," Turner said. "It's what I often use when I'm out boating."

"Our conservation officers are issued inflatable vests and wear them while working on the water. It has become the norm around the country for officers working on the water," Turner added.

Turner cautions that inflatables are not approved for all on-water uses such as operation of personal watercraft, waterskiing, tubing, etc. For these activities, inherently buoyant vests are required.

Turner says he's seeing a trend of increased usage of PFDs by boaters, something he attributes to national and local education campaigns as well as the new PFD designs.

A new law that goes into effect in November will help. Anyone born after July 1, 1996, will be required to have a boater safety certificate to operate a power boat in Michigan. Turner says that only makes sense.

"We wouldn't put somebody in car without training, why would be let them run a boat?" he asked. "Getting people trained will definitely help to make Michigan's waters safer."

Boaters can earn safety certificates through traditional classroom work or on the Internet. The DNR currently partners with two online companies to provide the necessary instruction. In 2011, a total of 22,753 Michigan citizens were certified and, over the long haul, every boater will be required to be certified.

But the new regulation won't impact anyone who is more than 16 years old right now - a huge percentage of the boating public.

A study of Michigan boating accidents in 2011 shows that boaters in their 40s are involved in more accidents than any other age group.

"There is a lot of focus on training kids, but statistics show that the 30- and 40-year-olds are involved in more boating accidents," Turner said. "There are many basic rules for operating a vessel on the water, and unfortunately many boaters have not been trained and simply do not know them."

For instance, one of the rules of the road is that boaters maintain no-wake speed within 100 feet of a boat at anchor, a swimmer, raft or dock. Unfortunately, seeing a boater roar past one of those situations isn't a rare sight to observe.

"That's one of our chief complaints every day we're on the water," Turner said. "It's a very common complaint with personal watercraft which are fast and very maneuverable. Getting folks to know and obey some of the very basic laws is critical for increased safety."

In addition to DNR conservation officers patrolling state waters, 81 of Michigan 83 counties now have some form of boating safety program run by the sheriff's department in partnership with the DNR.

Boating is, statistically, not especially dangerous. In 2011, there were a total of 123 boating accidents reported - not that many compared to the 811,670 registered motorboats in Michigan.

"We do very well considering the number of boats and our accident rate," Turner said. "But we can do better."

And the first step all boaters can take to make that happen? "Without question," Turner said, "wearing a PFD."

Additionally, the American Red Cross and the U.S. Lifesaving Association offer the following safety tips.

- Learn to swim. The best thing anyone can do to stay safe in and around the water is to learn to swim. Always swim with a buddy; never swim alone.

- Swim in supervised areas only.

- Obey all rules and posted signs.

- Watch out for the dangerous too's - too tired, too cold, too far from safety, too much sun, too much strenuous activity.

- Don't mix alcohol and swimming.

- Pay attention to local weather conditions and forecasts. Stop swimming at the first indication of bad weather.

- Know how to prevent, recognize, and respond to emergencies.



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