To boat safe, you've got to be sober and wear a life jacket

(Soapboxes are guest opinions from our readers, and anyone is welcome to write one. Ashley Massey is the public information representative for the Oregon State Marine Board.)

We've said it before, and we'll say it again; to boat safe, you've got to boat sober and wear a life jacket.

That mantra should be ringing in the ears of every Oregonian who takes to our state's great outdoors to fish, waterski, sail, paddle or just cruise along its waterways. But every year a day of recreational boating fun needlessly turns tragic, simply because someone was not wearing a life jacket or recklessly consumed alcohol.

Certainly, we are fortunate that Oregon has a relatively good record of safe boating practices. Sadly though, when it comes to boating safely on our state's waterways, there is something we have in common with the rest of the nation: Boaters who do not wear life jackets and who choose to boat under the influence of alcohol are much more likely to be involved in an accident - or worse yet, drown. In fact, each year 50 percent of boating accidents and one-third of boating fatalities in Oregon are alcohol-related.

The frustrating thing is that most fatalities could be averted if only all boat passengers and operators would wear personal flotation devices (life jackets) and boat sober. The proof is in the statistics.

- Although approximately 90 percent of Oregon adults buckle up when driving or riding in a vehicle, it is estimated that following national trends, only 10 percent of Oregonians age 18 and older regularly wear a life jacket when boating.

- Yet, we estimate that wearing a life jacket would save the lives of approximately 85 percent of the people who drown in Oregon boating accidents every year. Tragically, in 2004, of the 15 people who died in Oregon boating accidents, nearly half were not wearing a life jacket.

With such compelling figures, why then do we still face a safe boating problem? Some long-held misconceptions about wearing life jackets and drinking while boating keep people from taking adequate precautions. Here's the straight scoop:

- Myth: As long as the boat operator doesn't drink, there's no harm if passengers get a little tipsy. Fact: Because most boating fatalities occur from falls overboard, not collisions, intoxicated passengers and boat operators are equally at risk.

- Myth: Moderate drinking while boating is OK. Fact: Alcohol's effects on judgment, vision, balance and coordination are amplified on the water, increasing the likelihood of boating accidents. Plus, boating under the influence of intoxicants (BUII) is illegal in Oregon.

- Myth: I can grab a life jacket in an emergency. Fact: Waiting to put on a life jacket until faced with an emergency is like trying to buckle your seat belt as you are heading into a car crash. Accidents typically occur quickly and unexpectedly, making it nearly impossible to reach for, let alone put on a life jacket. Moreover, jackets stored year-after-year without maintenance may deteriorate and lose buoyancy.

- Myth: Wearing a life jacket is hot, bulky and impedes recreational fun. Fact: The newest generation of life jackets are lightweight and more comfortable than ever to wear, including inflatables that can be worn around the waist and jackets that don't look like jackets at all.

- Myth: Excellent swimmers don't need to wear life jackets. Fact: An unexpected plunge into cold and often swift Northwest waters can incapacitate even the best swimmers.

Certainly, with nearly 200,000 registered boats in Oregon, many boaters practice safe boating. We aren't satisfied though. We want to ensure a safe boating experience for all this summer. Even one fatality is one too many. It's an easy solution: Wear a PFD, boat sober and make Oregon's 2006 boating season the safest on record.

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