Life Jackets Save Lives!  

Idaho has seen more than its share of drownings and close calls so far in this boating/summer season on our lakes and rivers. One common denominator in all of the incidents is that the victims often times were not wearing a life jacket, officials said.

According to national statistics, about 3,500 people drown per year in the United States. In Idaho, an average of 34 drownings occur per year. In many cases, drownings can be prevented if people wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket. Eighty to 90% of the drownings can be prevented if people wear life jackets, officials said.

Another alarming statistic: The No. 1 cause of death for children under the age of 5 in the U.S. is drowning, said Earle Swope with the Idaho Drowning Prevention Coalition. That does not include mortalities caused by birth defects.

The Idaho Drowning Prevention Coalition just formed last year to work on building community partnerships to increase water safety through education, swimming lessons, water safety advocacy and life jacket use, Swope said.

The Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office has had to respond to more than 30 water rescues since May, officials told the East Idaho News. A person drowned in Palisades Reservoir, a woman swam out of an inflatable kayak to avoid three moose in a side channel on the South Fork Snake River, causing a major search and rescue operation near Fall Creek (she was found alive) and several vehicles have driven into canals full of water.

“People can be unaware of the dangers or they get separated from their group or they are not in a life jacket. Plan ahead, know where you are going, and pay attention to the weather and take safety measures,” said Kerry Hammon, a spokeswoman for the Idaho Falls Fire Department. They have responded to at least 18 water-rescue calls since mid-May, officials said.

Elsewhere in Idaho, drownings or close calls have occurred on the Payette River, Salmon River, Snake River at Pillar Falls, the Boise River and Lucky Peak Reservoir. One of the more noteworthy stories featured a man who survived 18 hours in cold water in the Boise River near Caldwell, tenuously holding onto a tree branch until rescuers arrived. The man’s body temperature was 93 degrees in a hypothermic state after he was rescued from the river. See article on KTVB-TV.

Many people floating the Boise River do not wear life jackets. (Courtesy Ada County Parks & Waterways Facebook)

Life jackets are required in Idaho for children 14 years old and under on boats 19 feet long or shorter whenever the boat is underway or under power. This applies to manually propelled boats such as canoes and rafts in addition to powerboats, sailboats, personal watercraft (jet skis) and fishing float tubes.

Regardless of age, people must wear a personal flotation device (PFD) aboard a personal watercraft (jet ski) and when being pulled behind a vessel (i.e. – waterskiing, wakeboarding, tubing, etc.)

PFD’s (personal flotation devices) must be Coast Guard-approved, properly sized, and in good condition (no broken buckles, torn straps, rips, tears, etc). They must also be within easy reach.

Pro tip: When purchasing a Coast Guard-approved PFD, make sure it fits your body. Practice swimming with your life jacket on in a shallow area of the water. Make sure the adjustment straps are pulled snug so the life jacket does not rise over your head when you’re trying to swim in open water.

For young children, a life jacket often will have a strap that runs through their legs to keep it snug to the body.

Want to use a loaner life jacket? Here’s a statewide map showing the location where loaner life jackets are available at no charge.

IDPR Boater Safety Classes

Like to take a boater safety class? IDPR has a mix of in-person and online classes available. See more here.

Water safety tips from the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office:

  • Know the waters you plan to recreate in BEFORE you enter them, including temperatures, flows, hazards, current weather patterns, etc. 
  • Use the appropriate watercraft, kayak, floatation device for the water you plan to enter
  • Plan for emergencies, let people know where you are recreating and when you plan to exit the water
  • Idaho law requires children 14 years or younger to wear a life jacket (vessels under 19ft), however the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office deputies ALWAYS recommend the use of life jackets when a vessel is underway (includes non-powered boats, kayaks, and boards that are paddled, rowed, etc.)

More details on life jacket regulations from our friends at the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation:

  • Boats less than 16 feet long, as well as canoes and kayaks of any length, must have at least one (1) Type I, Type II, or Type III PFD for each person on board. A Type IV cushion or ring buoy will not meet this requirement.
  • Boats 16 feet and longer (except canoes and kayaks of any length) must also carry a Type IV PFD (ring or cushion buoy).
  • A Type V is a special purpose PFD that may be used in place of a Type I, II, or III if listed on the label as approved for the type of boating the boater is doing, such as whitewater rafting.

Exemptions: Seaplanes, sailboards, and certain racing boats are exempt from these PFD requirements. Fly fishing float tubes do not require a PFD on lakes less than 200 surface acres. Fly fishing pontoons do require PFDs on all Idaho waters.

For more information, see the IDPR Boating Page.

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