Iowa DNR urges boater safety this weekend - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Iowa DNR urges boater safety this weekend

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DUBUQUE (KWWL) -

Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of summer, which brings a lot of people out onto Iowa's waterways.

However, there's a new call for increased caution while using watercraft after a couple of incidents on the Mississippi River in the last week.

A two-boat crash last weekend on the Mississippi River near Burlington killed four people and injured eight others. It happened as one of the boats was ferrying passengers to and from a party.

DNR officials said engine failure caused a near-collision Friday night, also on the Mississippi River near Burlington. Seven people had to be rescued after they jumped overboard when it appeared their boat was going to hit a barge.

On Saturday afternoon, Matt Hayertz and his family hit the Mississippi River in their new boat. With two young kids, Hayertz said he boats with caution.

"We just try to use common sense," he said. "We try to watch for other boaters, watch for debris in the water: ropes, logs, whatever it may be, keep our eyes open for the other guy."

He said he and his wife ensure is six- and two-year-old kids are in their life jackets even before they hit the dock. Iowa law requires kids under the age of 13 to wear a life jacket in any open portion of a boat.

DNR conservation officer Nate Johnson performs boat safety inspections.

"While we're here, can we do a real quick boat safety inspection, make sure you got four wearable life jackets on board?" he asked four people on a boat near his own vessel Saturday afternoon.

The inspections aren't just about drinking and boating. Johnson also ensures boaters have enough life jackets for each person, a throwable life jacket, a working fire extinguisher if the type of boat requires it and more. Failure to have the necessary safety equipment can result in a citation.

"Scheduled fine for not having enough life jackets on your boat is 87 dollars," Johnson said.

A first boating while intoxicated offense is a serious misdemeanor. The second offense is an aggravated misdemeanor and the third is a class D felony, Johnson said.

Unlike driving, there's no open container law.

Still, Johnson said, "We strongly recommend always having a designated driver, not getting behind the wheel if you've had anything to drink, but certainly the legal limit is .08, the same as it is on the road."

Last year, the state of Iowa dropped its legal blood alcohol content limit for boaters from .1 to .08. Since then, Johnson said, the DNR has seen more designated drivers on boats.

In 2011, the DNR cited 54 people with a BWI. One in particular came at a high price.

"We did have one fatality last year here in Dubuque, which was alcohol related, and certainly we don't want anything like that to happen again, so hopefully people have that in the back of their minds that somebody did die last year as a result of somebody that was operating that had consumed some alcohol," Johnson said.

Waves and sun can increase the effect of alcohol on the body, he said. Plus, there's a lot to look out for.

"The water's not like a two-lane highway, where there's only vehicles coming behind you and straight in front of you. You could have boats coming at you 360, so you want to make sure you're looking out for other operators as well," Johnson said.

"You know, we've got a great big river here. It's big enough for everybody that wants to get out and have a good time," Hayertz said.

The DNR will step up its boating safety compliance enforcement next month during its Operation Dry Water. That's the weekend of June 22-24.

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