Boating safety officials hope a new life jacket loaner program will help continue a steady decline in the the number of serious and fatal boat accidents on Arizona lakes.
Officials from several agencies, including Arizona Game and Fish Department and Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, used Memorial Day weekend to kick off the new program, in which officers patrolling lakes will keep life vests on board to loan to boaters who don’t have sufficient life jackets of their own.
Kevin Bergersen, the boating law administrator for the game and fish department, said under the program people now will be able to stay out on the water if they don’t have life vests, and in some cases may avoid citation.
“It also prevents a tragedy from occurring before it even starts,” Bergersen said.
State and federal law requires that every boat have a properly sized and fitted life jacket for every person on board, and children 12 years old and under must wear a life jacket while the boat is underway. It also requires that each boat have a throwable floating rescue device, like a ringed buoy, and a fire extinguisher. Boat operators without the required safety equipment will be cited, which carries a monetary fine. The amount varies based on how many safety devices were missing and is calculated per item.
In the past two decades, the average number of annual Arizona boat accidents has dropped from about 450 to 180, while the average number of fatalities has decreased from about 10 to 4, Bergersen said.
The game and fish department and Sheriff’s Office partnered with multiple organizations, including Stearns Inc., U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and Air Methods, the parent company of Native Air and Life Net, to launch the life-jacket loaner program.
Air Methods donated $1,000 to pay for about 100 life vests from Stearns that law enforcement officers from the Sheriff’s Office and game and fish department will use for the loaner program.
“This is an effort to prevent that sobering statistic of drowning. We want to knock that down to zero,” Bergersen said. “If you get these grassroots safety projects across the state, you can continue these downward boat accident curves that we’ve been experiencing.”
The program is an expansion of similar ones at Lake Havasu and along the Colorado River that have been around for about four years, he said. There also is a life jacket exchange program at Lake Havasu in which people can trade in old life jackets for new ones.
Most offenders could qualify to take a boat safety education class in lieu of paying the fine.
Officials said the intent behind the life jacket loaner program and offering boat safety courses is to educate people so they can be safer on the water.
Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office lake patrol Cmdr. Russ Skinner said enforcement can be very challenging because a lot of people don’t know the rules and regulations for waterways, which often leads to boating accidents and fatalities.
“We would much rather educate than have to enforce,” Skinner said. “We can save a life hopefully in the future and (the) bottom line is we want to keep the waterways safe in Arizona and Maricopa County.”