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Rich Landers: Life jacket requirement renders tubers disposable

Life jackets are required to be worn while floating on any sort of vessel on moving water in Spokane County, but Spokane does not have the same requirement for waters within the city. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Life jackets are required to be worn while floating on any sort of vessel on moving water in Spokane County, but Spokane does not have the same requirement for waters within the city. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Tubers have a right to be stupid while floating on the Spokane River within the City of Spokane.

A stand-up paddleboarder who is brave, skilled or foolish enough to paddle through the rapids at the Bowl and Pitcher would be required to wear a life jacket for a baseline measure of safety.

But a fun-loving dude floating on an inner tube could legally bare his chest to the whitewater without a life jacket or fear of a ticket.

This loophole in the safety net of city-county-state boating rules came to light after I posted a commentary on Tuesday on the Outdoors Blog regarding the weekend river rescue of five tubers who got themselves in a dangerous jam.

Experienced rafters had been grousing over a news report that “rafters” had to be rescued on Saturday after being swept away by the Spokane River’s still-high, cold flows and were caught up in trees away from shore in Peaceful Valley.

“There’s a difference between rafters and tubers,” one man said on Facebook, noting that experienced rafters have better craft, don wet or dry suits for cold water immersion and wear life jackets.

The rescue involving approximately 35 responders was called to help the young men who were in the river on inner tubes and beyond their skill level. Worst of all, they wore no life jackets. Clueless. It’s also illegal – or at least you would think so.

According to a Spokane County ordinance, “All persons regardless of age shall wear a personal flotation device while on moving water.”

The tubers were not issued tickets for violating the county law, and I wondered why.

“Because they were in the city,” said Spokane County Marine Patrol Deputy Jim Ebel.

The fine for failure to wear a life jacket on moving water in Spokane County is $76. “We write a lot of those tickets on the Spokane River from the stateline down to the Centennial Trail Bridge (near Plante’s Ferry Park), which is real popular with tubers,” Ebel said.

But within the city limits there’s no personal flotation device (PFD) requirement and therefore no fine or safety enforcement leverage, he said.

“I’ve brought it up to the city almost every year, but even though we have issues almost every year including at the Bowl and Pitcher area, the city has not adopted the county ordinance,” Ebel said.

Washington state law requires a life jacket to be on a vessel for each person aboard. “That applies to stand-up paddleboards, canoes, rafts and boats, but inner tubes are a gray area in the law,” he said. “Is an inner tube a vessel under Coast Guard standards or is it a swim toy?”

Swim toys are not considered vessels under state law. In other words, laws have been adopted to regulate safety requirements for craft designed to handle whitewater, but if someone launches down a rapid in a toy that’s not designed for Class 4 rapids he doesn’t have to be concerned with safety – until something goes wrong.

“The standard we go by is that if you use an oar, paddle or other means of propulsion, the state law applies to that vessel,” Ebel said.

“In that case, including a paddleboard, state law would require you to have a PFD for each person aboard as well as at least one sound device (such as a whistle) on the vessel. The fine for violating the state law is $99.”

On moving waters in Spokane County, the state rule is stepped up a notch by requiring that each person aboard any vessel, including tubes, must be wearing a life jacket.

Spokane area firefighters, who are trained in swiftwater rescue, are the first responders to river emergencies in the area, Ebel said, noting that the County Sheriff’s Marine Patrol is their backup support.

“We’re the ones with the bigger boats and the dive team,” he said.

In other words, the deputies take over in underwater searches. They pick up the bodies of drowning victims, most of whom are not wearing life jackets.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list failure to wear a life jacket as among the top reasons people drown.

It’s beyond time to take life jacket laws as seriously in the city as we do in the county.

Make life jackets the law throughout the county. That would put them on the equipment list of every family, along with coolers, towels, sunscreen and snacks.

Then enforce the rule with kids and adults. Parents are powerful role models – if they wear life jackets, it’s more likely their children will, too.


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