Sheriff reflects on few 'Jet Ski' problems at lake
After years of debate, law enforcement officers will get a new set of laws to use in enforcing water safety for operators of "Jet Ski" style personal watercraft vehicles. The laws won't hurt, Buena Vista County Sheriff Chuck Eddy said this week, but they don't fully address the need for safety training or how rural departments will find the manpower to adequately patrol Iowa waters.
The new personal watercraft law will take effect on Monday. Despite some concerns for infringing on the fun of Iowa's lakes and rivers, the measure easily passed through the statehouse last season and was signed by Gov. Tom Vilsack.
The law will make three major changes:
* Limit the use of personal watercraft to daylight hours, sunrise to sunset.
* Prohibit the use of personal watercraft to harass wildlife or animals.
* Set a minimum age of 12 to use personal watercraft unless accompanied by an adult.
Eddy said that he can recall no public complaints about watercraft after dark, or watercraft intentionally being used to abuse animal life.
"I really don't think we've had too many of those kind of problems, at least not on Storm Lake," the sheriff said. "The complaints we have gotten have been on larger boats sitting out on the water late at night having a party and making a lot of racket, and this law does not address that."
Eddy said he can't recall any jet ski accidents on the lake in the past year, although incidents had been fairly common before that.
"We have had some cases of jet skis running into boats or other jet skis, and I'd say we've had a good five or six where people have been trying to show off and spin around and they wind up just falling off and hurting themselves."
The sheriff approves of the new age limit. In the past, children have been allowed to operate the crafts with no training or supervision.
"An age limit is needed. We have a lot of younger kids out there riding around. Sometimes we see them pulling another kid on a raft, and not having a second rider who can observe the safety of the person on the raft. We also see them tearing in and out too close to the docks or shore areas to be safe," Eddy said. "I think these vehicles can be fun and safe, but it doesn't hurt to have some training and to make sure people are a little older or more responsible before they are on the lake alone."
The law prohibits youth age 12-17 from operating a jet ski vehicle unless they have passed some form of safety training as recognized by the Department of Natural Resources, according to a statement from the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, which agrees with the new Iowa law.
"The (organization) was very helpful in building support for this important legislation. This is a clear step in the right direction toward ensuring our waterways are safe for all who wish to enjoy them," said Randy Edwards, from the Bureau of Law Enforcement of the Iowa Department of Natural Resource.
Eddy notes that the law doesn't make any direct provisions to make safety courses available to the public. "Safety training for everyone would be nice. We've tried it in the past along with the DNR, but we never got very many to sign up," Eddy said. Local conservation officials are gearing up to try to offer a new set of safety classes.
"What I would like to see is a general water safety training program for young people, since we do live in a lake community area. It should get into personal watercraft and general water safety, a little bit of water rescue, and even ice rescue, because we have so many people out on the ice here in the winter and have a terrific risk for someone falling through," Eddy said.
The law also doesn't provide for any law enforcement to back it up.
"The DRN has some people out on Storm Lake on the weekend and some times during the week. We would like to have deputies on lake patrol more than we do, but as busy as we have been, there hasn't been much of an opportunity," Eddy said.
Officers were on the lake on Wednesday, checking out the patrol boat and making ready for Fourth of July holiday water patrols.
The sheriff's department doesn't intend to use the new laws to get in the way of people's fun, Eddy said. "We would just as soon enforce laws on the lake on the basis of preventative safety. But if someone is doing something drastically wrong, putting someone else at risk, or persisting in bad behavior even after an officer has told them not to do it, our officers will write those citations."
According to the PWIA, states that have enacted safety rules similar to Iowa's new law have experienced double-digit percentage drops in accident reports.
The group continues to lobby for a state law for all types of boating vehicles to set minimum age requirements and mandatory training for users under age 18.