Planning to celebrate the Fourth of July with a few drinks, fireworks and boating? State and local law enforcement agencies are encouraging Iowans to keep those activities separate — and offering tips on how to remain safe over the holiday.
“This is going to be a busy holiday weekend. There’s going to be many people visiting family, visiting friends, and just having a good time on the Fourth of July and celebrating this weekend,” Sgt. Alex Dinkla of the Iowa State Patrol said. “We can’t stress enough that if people choose to go out, make good choices, make reasonable choices, and ultimately, we want you to be safe as you’re getting to and from your destination.”
The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates 15,600 people in the U.S. were hospitalized with fireworks-related injuries in 2020 alone — the highest number in the last 15 years, USA TODAY reported. Of those injuries, 66% happened from June 21 to July 21.
Fireworks are not the only danger posed around the Fourth of July holiday — and state and local law enforcement agencies want the public to be aware of potential risks and keep a safety plan in place.
Here are some safety issues to look out for and what officials say you should do to remain safe over the weekend.
Practice water safety while boating
The sparkling water of one of Iowa’s lakes and rivers may seem like an inviting place to celebrate the Fourth of July — but a lot can go wrong on the water, according to boating education coordinator Susan Stocker with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
“A lot of things could be prevented if we educate our people and they just take the time to be safety aware,” Stocker said.
The Iowa Department of Public Health reports 27 accidental drowning deaths in 2020; data from 2021 is incomplete.
One way to prevent boating accidents is to take a boater education course, according to Stocker. Boating education is required for Iowans ages 12 to 17 who intend to operate a motorboat. The course is not required for adults, though Stocker strongly recommends it for everyone.
“It’s a great idea for adults to take it because first of all, insurance companies will give you a reduced rate on your insurance for your boat,” Stocker said. Even for longtime boaters, “it allows you to be more proactive and watch out for the people that don’t have as much experience as you do.”
Stocker emphasized the importance of looking around and being aware of one’s surroundings while boating.
“One instance could be, after we get a rain and there’s higher water, then you’re going to have debris flow in the water,” Stocker said. “You may see just a small stick in the water, but that could be attached to a 30-foot tree below the surface that could potentially cause damage.”
A common mistake Stocker has seen is boats driving too close to other boats. Boaters are advised to maintain a 100-foot distance between boats, and be aware of water skiers riding behind boats.
Boats need to be equipped with a life jacket for each person, kept in an easily accessible location in case of emergencies. Not only is it a life-saving measure, but it helps rescuers find people in the event of an emergency, according to Capt. Tristan Johnson with the Johnston-Grimes Metropolitan Fire Department.
“The No. 1 thing to be safe on the water is wearing a life jacket,” Johnson said. “If people are wearing a life jacket, there’s a higher chance we can find them. If not, it becomes a lot more difficult.”
It is important for boaters to have a phone in case of emergencies, Johnson said, and to remain aware of what part of the lake or river they are in.
“We get a lot of times when people call and they don’t know where they are, and it takes us a good amount of time to find them,” Johnson said. “Like right now, there’s not a lot of boats out, but when there is, it becomes a lot more difficult. So just maintain a plan and a way to call if something happens.”
And just like driving, stay sober or get pulled over. In 2011, Iowa reduced the blood alcohol level for boating while intoxicated from .10 to .08, the same as driving a vehicle while intoxicated, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
“Alcohol reduces your reaction time, and it reduces your ability to see other boats,” Stocker said. “And what people don’t realize is that unlike when you drive a car, the wind, the sun and the environmental elements all play a factor, and they enhance the effects of alcohol. So leave the alcohol at home.”
Water patrol will be out in full force this weekend ensuring boaters stay safe while celebrating the holiday.
Stay alive: Never drink and drive
For Iowans planning to celebrate the Fourth of July with a few drinks, law enforcement agencies have a message: Stay off the roads.
“If you choose to drink, please don’t drive. We try to stress that,” Dinkla said. “Find that sober driver, find that designated driver. Ultimately, we want you to be safe as you are going to and from your destination, and we don’t want you to be a hazard or create any crashes or extra fatalities that we’re seeing on our roadways.”
Law enforcement agencies across the state will be participating in the national Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over campaign July 2-5, according to the Iowa Department of Public Safety.
Drinking and driving is not the only safety concern on the roads. Out of the 147 people who have died on Iowa roadways so far this year, 48% of those people were not wearing a seat belt, according to Dinkla.
“We can’t stress that enough,” Dinkla said. “Those 48%, had they had their seat belt on, there’s a greater chance that they would not have been killed or even injured in a crash.”
Iowa State Patrol has also seen an uptick in what they call “egregious” speeds — drivers traveling over 100 miles per hour. The pandemic seemed to exacerbate the problem, as people felt comfortable traveling at higher speeds when there were fewer cars on the road, according to Dinkla.
“The dangers are increased and the ability to survive a crash is very much diminished when you’re traveling at that type of speed,” Dinkla said. “So we can’t stress enough, please obey the speed limit, wear that seat belt and find that designated driver.”
Outdoor safety and fireworks
Iowans heading to the nearby Saylorville Lake to celebrate the Fourth of July must leave their fireworks at home, federal authorities say.
“The Saylorville reservoir is federal property, and there’s no explosives and fireworks and things like that allowed on federal property,” said Greg Hand, a park ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “So anywhere in any of our day use campgrounds and things like that, parking lots, boat ramps, anywhere around the property, you cannot possess fireworks, and we would like people to be cognizant of that.”
In the most recent data available, the Iowa Department of Public Health recorded 167 cases of fireworks-related injuries resulting in emergency department visits in 2020. In 2019, 127 fireworks-related emergency department visits were reported, down slightly from 143 in 2018 and 159 in 2017, the year Iowa’s longstanding ban on retail fireworks sales was lifted.
Still, these numbers were dramatically higher than the reported fireworks-related ER visits from 2009 to 2016, which stayed in the double digits and ranged from 38 to 86 incidents each year.
“It is something we take very seriously,” Hand said. “Nobody wants to go to court and have a citation or anything like that. And it’s a safety thing as well. Fireworks are very dangerous. It’s already going to be a busy weekend, so if we can leave the fireworks at home, that would be great.”
Aside from fireworks, spending long amounts of time outdoors can pose risks as Iowa temperatures hover around the 90s.
“Always drink a lot of water,” Angie Jansen, a conservation officer with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said. “I know people like to come out on the water and have drinks and stuff like that, but make sure that they’re drinking a lot of water.
“When you’re out there and the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, you’re going to get dehydrated a lot faster, Jensen said.”
Grace Altenhofen is a news reporter for the Des Moines Register. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @gracealtenhofen.