Drowning deaths prompt lawmakers to craft legislation

Published 1:29 pm Monday, July 2, 2007

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
ST. JOSEPH – Legislation to keep visitors safe while enjoying Michigan beaches, piers and waterways was announced Friday morning at Silver Beach County Park by state Sen. Ron Jelinek and Reps. Neal Nitz, John Proos and Tonya Schuitmaker.
Michigan offers more than 3,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline frequented every year by local residents and tourists enjoying boating, fishing and swimming, with the Fourth of July holiday a peak period.
However, more than 30 people drowned off southwest Michigan's coast in Berrien and Van Buren counties alone over the past five years.
A 2004 issue of National Geographic magazine identified Lake Michigan as one of the most dangerous zones, with undertows and rip currents resulting in more than 50 drownings since 2000.
Those fatalities led lawmakers and local officials to push for measures to further safety for all on Michigan waterways.
"We're on a mission," state Sen. Ron Jelinek said. "We've had way too many drownings and losses of life," most recently June 18 "on the south pier behind us. Two hours later there was another near drowning. And just this last week, we had another near drowning. We cannot afford to lose our citizens this way. We have to do something to protect them," even if it means "legislating common sense" to thwart tragedy.
"People don't necessarily understand undertows," Jelinek said. "We need to help them along."
Proos, R-St. Joseph, a former lifeguard and lifelong swimmer, introduced House Bill 5001 to protect lifeguards such as Tony Beall, Silver Beach County Park head lifeguard, in Michigan's Good Samaritan Act.
"During a water emergency," Proos said, "lifeguards are often the first responders at the scene and can make the life-or-death difference. They are highly trained and prepared to risk their own lives to save someone else. My legislation would protect lifeguards from any liability when they perform lifesaving emergency care in an act of good faith to a person who is in crisis."
Dowagiac's state Rep. Neal Nitz, R-Baroda, said, "In 2003, a young man in my district, Landon Miller, asked me to introduce a resolution promoting safe swimming. Every year since, we have designated the first week in July Fun, Safe Swimming Week in Michigan. There have been too many accidents that could have been prevented if people would have been more cautious and followed safety guidelines. With nearly 100 accidental drownings each year in Michigan, it is vital we take swimming safety seriously. We must be aware of the dangers that go along with being blessed with an abundance of shoreline and beaches. Fortunately, the Coast Guard, public safety and lifeguards are committed to protecting the public and insuring our waterways are as safe for our use as possible."
Schuitmaker, a former Cass County assistant prosecutor, and Jelinek, a former teacher, introduced HB 5002 and Senate Bill 628 to assist local communities that install life rings and call boxes.
Schuitmaker said many counties are required to install this emergency response equipment, yet life rings and call boxes are often vandalized or stolen.
The bills would designate that providing access to safety and rescue equipment on a public beach is a governmental function and therefore the municipality providing the equipment falls under governmental immunity laws.
"Occasionally," Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, said, "vandals render these lifesaving devices inaccessible – putting an added strain on attempts by the county to keep its residents safe. This is why we have introduced legislation to encourage counties to participate in the purchasing and placement of safety devices such as life rings and call boxes in the most efficient locations to be used when saving a life."
Jelinek said, "There was a case last summer where one young man thought a life ring would look good in his dorm room. He was on his way to college, got stopped for another violation and they noticed the life ring in the car, so then he was charged with theft of a safety device. There are some teeth in this. We need to put all the pieces together to make it work."
Jelinek, R-Three Oaks, Thursday introduced SB 629, which would make pier jumping a civil infraction punishable by a $500 fine.
"Pier jumping has become a thrill-seeking activity for the young and old alike," Cass County's state senator said at the 1998 Shadowland Pavilion, with a Coast Guard cutter and Richard Hunt's welded stainless steel 2002 sculpture, "And You, Seas," as a backdrop.
"While we know teens sometimes dare each other to take risks without thinking of the consequences," Jelinek said, "we hope the majority of them would think twice before doing something illegal that also puts their life and the lives of others in jeopardy. Through this package of legislation, we hope to increase public education about water and pier safety while preventing future deaths and injuries."
"Interestingly enough," Jelinek continued, pier jumping "is already federal law, but it can't be enforced unless it's a federal officer enforcing it. All we're doing is extending the law.
"Something I found interesting, yesterday one of our local newspapers did a poll on should we outlaw jumping off piers. Seventy-six percent of people who responded said, yes, we should. That shows the public feels this is important."
They were joined at the Port of St. Joseph by St. Joseph Police Chief Mark Clapp, marine Lt. Martin Kurtz of the Berrien County Sheriff's Office, South Haven Mayor Dorothy Appleyard, Berrien County Commissioners Jeanette Leahey of St. Joseph and Debra Panozzo of Stevensville and Berrien County Parks and Recreation Department Director Randy Rood.
"This all started last fall when Mayor Appleyard contacted me and said, 'What can we do about the loss of life on Lake Michigan?' " Jelinek recalled. "We put meetings together with all of our municipalities up and down the lakeshore to see what we could do. This legislation today is in many ways a result of those important meetings and the concern that all municipalities have up and down Lake Michigan."
"The City of St. Joseph wants this to be a safe place for folks to visit," Clapp commented. "I want to commend our elected officials for the work they're doing to help us create a safe environment here – especially on the pier."
"This is a very important package of bills," Schuitmaker said. "It's incumbent on us as community leaders, along with our local community leaders, to educate the public, like when seatbelts were first installed in vehicles. Statistics show we save lives when we buckle up. This package of bills will also be important in saving lives. Time and time again, my local leaders, particularly Mayor Appleyard, have come to me and said, 'As a state, give us the tools as local leaders to help save these lives of people.' "
"Ten months ago," Appleyard said, "eight or 10 lakeshore communities in this region came together in this pier safety initiative. This has been a wonderful collaboration with all these communities coming together for a mutual cause. I ask everyone to support our legislators in the bills they propose because these are essential tools local communities need to keep people safe."
Leahey added, "We thank our legislators for their willingness to understand the problems we face in these communities in trying to protect people. These new bills would provide the latitude municipalities need while taking away some of the liability risk. We need to remember that nothing is 100-percent safe. There is some personal responsibility here."
"Berrien County takes pier safety very seriously," added Kurtz, who started with the Marine Division Jan. 1. "I've been very pleased with the City of St. Joseph's attitude reference pier safety and the communities as a whole along the Great Lakes. This will not only provide a little more confidence for people who walk the piers, it could save a life. I'm very pleased with all the action taken, specifically in the last three months that we've pushed this project forward."
The legislation heads to House and Senate committees for consideration.