Life jacket rule could create confusion

July 1, 2011

By Staff

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The King County Council has passed an ordinance to require anyone who swims, floats or boats on major rivers this summer to wear a life jacket. Violators will be fined $86.

The law takes effect July 1 and expires Oct. 31. The short-term requirement is in response to the swift, icy snow melt from mountains filling rivers later than usual this year, creating a heightened risk to public safety.

The ordinance is a bit over the top for citizens who don’t like government telling adults how to be safe. The idea has been quick to garner comments from those opposed to “nanny” laws, and those who believe the county is seeking a new revenue source.

If anything, this short-term law will likely cost taxpayers. Signage at entry points along the Snoqualmie, Tolt, Cedar, Green, White, Raging and Skykomish rivers will be installed immediately to educate the public, and those without life jackets will get a warning for a first violation. This all takes time and money in advance of any fine collections being made — but so does search and recovery of drowning victims.

Public education about water safety would make it worthwhile even if no fines were ever collected. State law already requires children younger than 12 to wear life vests, and adults to have one on board vessels that are shorter than 19 feet long, including the rafts, canoes and kayaks often used on rivers. Yet, reports of river floaters without life vests vary from 60 percent to 90 percent.

We would have preferred King County adopt a stronger education program about the use of life jackets rather than send a mixed message this year only. We would hate for citizens to think life vests are only necessary this summer.

If there is money to be spent on public safety, it should be used to expand the loaner life jacket program now in place at some King County park beaches. And encourage the state law to add a permanent requirement for life jackets on swimmers younger than 12 on the major rivers.

Ultimately, it’s up to adults to set a good example by being responsible for themselves and their families. Only then will government leaders stop worrying about the public and its safety by implementing laws.

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