Wear a life vest in King County or face a fine

Now that summer has officially arrived, swimmers in King County are now required to wear a life vest in rivers or face an $86 fine.

The Metropolitan King County Council passed the controversial personal floatation device ordinance by a 5-4 vote Monday.

A heightened risk to public safety prompted King County Executive Dow Constantine, with the backing of a wide range of public safety and health officials, to call for the summer-long requirement for wearing life vests by anyone swimming, floating or boating on major rivers running through unincorporated King County.

“This proposal will help save lives,” Constantine said. “River flows are unusually swift and cold this year due to a heavy mountain snowpack that is melting into King County rivers. Rivers are inherently dangerous places to play, but this year is bringing additional risks. The wearing of life jackets is as essential for swimmers and boaters as helmets for cyclists and seat belts for drivers.”

An average of 23 people perish in drowning accidents every year in King County, with nearly two-thirds occurring on open water, including rivers, lakes and Puget Sound, according to data gathered by Public Heath – Seattle and King County.

“The best drowning prevention on rivers is to stay out, but a PFD (personal flotation device) can be a lifesaver if you end up in the water,” said Dr. David Fleming, director and health officer for Public Health – Seattle and King County. “With especially fierce and cold river flows running this summer, requiring PFD use on our rivers is a sensible step to save lives.”

In a King County study conducted last year, 61 percent of children under age 12 and 98 percent of teenagers under age 18 were observed not wearing life vests when floating on the Cedar River. State law already requires that children 12 and under wear a Coast Guard approved life vest on vessels less than 19 feet long.

“We support this proposal,” said Sheriff Sue Rahr. “The vast majority of river accidents to which our Marine Unit responds could have been prevented if recreationalists had simply worn a PFD, had been sober, or had a better understanding of the dangerous nature of rivers.”

The new county law applies to people innertubing and rafting along with those using a surfboard, canoe or kayak. Swimmers or people wading more than 5 feet from shore or in water more than 4 feet deep must also wear life vests.

Between 85 and 90 percent of boating-related drowning victims are not wearing life vests, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. A recent study indicated that at least half of those would have survived had they worn a PFD.

“As an emergency responder to water-related emergencies on our rivers, I’ve seen firsthand how the use of PFD’s can make a difference,” said Mountain View Fire and Rescue Assistant Chief Robert Young. “With the wearing of life vests, we can avoid needless tragedies.”


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