Boat dangers remain as alcohol, life jacket legislation fail
MADISON Edward Seiler doesn’t remember much about the crash in which he was ejected from a 16-foot fishing boat into chilly waters in May 2009.
The then-78-year-old hit the water, face down and unconscious. Another boat traveling between 15 and 20 mph had collided with the bow of Seiler’s anchored fishing boat on Lake Waubesa near Madison. A passenger in the boat that hit Seiler pulled him from the water, saving his life, according to the Dane County Sheriff’s Office.
Investigators say Seiler, of Dane, likely would have died from the collision had he not been wearing a life jacket. The driver of the boat that hit Seiler got a $160.80 citation. He told officers he didn’t see the other boat until it was too late.
“This was a freak accident, but I was thankful that I had (a life jacket) on, you bet,” said Seiler, whose two fishing companions weren’t injured.
Seiler’s near-disaster was one of the state’s 104 boating accidents in 2009 that left 16 dead and 69 injured, according to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources records. None of those who died was wearing a life jacket.
Data from 10 years’ worth of reports compiled by the DNR and reviewed by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism show that 189 people have died while boating in Wisconsin, an average of 19 fatalities a year. This year, as of mid-July, nine had died in boating accidents.
Despite the continued concern over preventable boating accidents and fatalities, Wisconsin lawmakers tried but failed in the last session to pass new laws mandating life jackets for children and cracking down on intoxicated boating, which is No. 5 on the top 10 list of accident causes.
Wisconsin—along with Virginia—remains one of two states that doesn’t require children to wear life jackets while boating, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
While children 12 and under must wear life jackets on boats on Lake Michigan, the Mississippi River and other federal waters, Wisconsin law dictates only that there must be enough life jackets for each person on board.
In April 2009, state Sen. Jim Sullivan, D-Wauwatosa, introduced a bill for the second time that would require children 12 and under to wear a life jacket while boating on Wisconsin waters. It failed to pass before the legislative session ended.
“This is something that is No. 1, consistent with the federal law, consistent with the state law in 48 other states, and yet Wisconsin doesn’t take this step,” said Sullivan.
When Wisconsin DNR conservation warden Nate Kroeplin takes to the Dane County waters in his patrol area, among the first things he checks is whether life jackets are on board. Kroeplin said some boaters store their required life jackets in locked compartments, buried under other equipment or still in the plastic bag.
“What the law says is for wearable life jackets, they have to be readily accessible, which means you should be able to get at them pretty quickly,” Kroeplin said.
Of the 189 reported boating fatalities in Wisconsin between 2000 and 2009, 46 were known to have been wearing a life jacket. Sullivan and DNR officials agree most fatalities could have been avoided if the victims were wearing life jackets.
As was the case in 2008, mishaps involving small vessels made up a large proportion of the boating accidents in 2009. Fatalities, largely from drowning, occurred among those traveling in the smallest boats, with 13 of the 16 who died in canoes, kayaks, rowboats or small fishing boats.
Alcohol is still a constant presence on the waterways, Kroeplin said. Wardens across the state wrote 383 tickets for drunken boating in 2009, a slight decrease from 397 in 2008, according to the DNR.
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism collaborates with its partners—Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication—and other news media.