Boats tie up next to a bar along the Colorado River near Parker. Arizona ranked seventh in the nation in its number of boating accidents in 2008, yet it's one of only six states that doesn't require some or all operaters to go through a course on safe boating. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Travis Grabow)

Travis Grabow

PHOENIX – Arizona boating fatalities are the highest in five years, and officials say the economy may be a factor.

With 10 deaths so far this year, the Arizona Game and Fish Department is reminding boaters to wear life jackets, take boater education classes and check that equipment is working properly.

Of the deaths, six were drownings, three of which involved people who weren’t wearing life jackets, and four resulted from accidents. The last year with as many fatalities was 2006, when 14 people died on Arizona waterways.

Kevin Bergersen, the department’s boating law administrator, said that while recreational boating is down with the economy more people are using canoes and kayaks that require paddling.

Four of the 10 fatalities this year involved people using paddle–powered craft, he said.

“There’s a paddling increase because it’s affordable and you can buy a paddle craft for the whole family,” Bergersen said.

Lt. Alan Nelson, supervisor of La Paz County Sheriff Department’s Marine Enforcement Unit, said there’s been a decrease in law enforcement patrols on the water due to budget cuts. In La Paz County, he said, that’s meant a loss of two of his unit’s five officers.

“County sheriff departments don’t have the personnel to place out on the waterways,” Nelson said. “We try to do the best we can with limited manpower and funding.”

Ed Huntsman, boating safety education administrator for Game and Fish, said boater safety training can make a big difference.

Arizona is one of seven states that don’t require boaters to complete safety training, with less than 1 percent taking a course annually, he said.

“Nationally, 70 to 80 percent of people involved in boating accidents have never had a formal class,” he said.

Alongside regular boater safety classes, Game and Fish plans to begin offering a new safety course for paddlers in January, Huntsman said.

Bergersen said education is the key to safer waters.

“Boaters should always take a boater education class and always wear a life jacket,” he said. “An informed boater is a safe boater.”

Anna Consie is a reporter for Cronkite News Service.

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