U teams with teenagers for watercraft safety training

by Sarah McKenzie

In the land of more than 10,000 lakes, summer is often synonymous with family cabins and a wide assortment of water sports.
But an increased number of people zipping along Minnesota waterways in boats and personal watercraft means many parents and law enforcement officials are searching for ways to make the lakes safer.
The 4-H Foundation, a University extension service organization, has launched the Watercraft Attitude Value Education program in Crow Wing and Hennepin counties. The water-safety program is wrapping up its first summer.
Leaders from the safety-training group will display their efforts in the 4-H building at the Minnesota State Fair starting Aug. 27. Group participants will display projects and put on a life-jacket fashion show.
“People are hungry to know how to do this right,” said Deb Noll, executive director of the 4-H Foundation. “The program is aimed at making young people more socially responsible.”
Noll said the training program targeted at teenagers ages 13 to 15 is the first of its kind in the nation. The foundation received a $28,000 grant from watercraft manufacturer Polaris last fall to teach individuals the correct way to operate the vehicles.
WAVE organizers said they hope the company continues to invest in the their efforts so they can market their ideas about personal watercraft safety nationwide.
According to reports from the Department of Natural Resources, two Minnesotans died last year in personal watercraft accidents. No one has died this summer while operating the vehicles.
But the number of non-fatal accidents has been steadily on the rise since 1995, with more than 60 accidents last summer on Minnesota lakes, according to DNR reports.
Kim Elverum, boat and water safety coordinator for the DNR, said while they have not yet compiled any formal statistics for the summer season, the number of accidents is down significantly this summer.
“We’ve had 100 some clips in local newspapers about our efforts to publicize water safety,” Elverum said.
Fliers near lakes, DNR mailings to each registered personal watercraft owner in the state and new training programs have also contributed to a decline in injuries and accidents, he said.
Although the WAVE program is not directly affiliated with the DNR, Elverum and Noll said they share a common purpose of social responsibility.
“We’ve had a very positive response from park rangers and families throughout the state,” Noll said.
She said 1998 state legislation mandating personal watercraft operators stay more than 150 feet away from other boats and watercraft has also improved conditions on Minnesota lakes and rivers.
“People are out in these bodies of water with no road signs,” Noll said. “We’re aiming at the younger kids because we want them to know the rules before they learn bad habits.”
Elverum said 18- to 29-year-olds are the most likely personal watercraft operators to be involved in accidents. Thirteen to 17-year-olds are in the third-leading group.