Legislators in the state’s House Transportation Committee heard emotional testimony on Thursday, Jan. 13 afternoon from a Southwest Washington family who is advocating for a new law that would install signs on bridges and water overpasses to educate people about the danger of cold-shock drownings.
The family of Zachary Rager — the Centralia teen who drowned last year after jumping from a railroad trestle into the frigid Chehalis River waters and experiencing cold water shock — voiced their unwavering support for House Bill 1595, sponsored by Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia.
“Had some of these signs been posted somewhere where these kids could see this, like my son, he would have thought twice about this. It’s more than just saying ‘no jumping, no diving.’ It’s letting these kids know why they shouldn’t do it,” Lee Hines, Zachary’s stepfather, told lawmakers.
If passed, HB 1595 would allow cities, towns and counties to erect informational signs near or attached to bridges about the hazards of cold water shock and deterring recreational jumping. It would also create a fund for the public to donate money for the purpose of erecting the signs, similar to the state’s memorial highway program.
It would also require state agencies to consider placing the signs on new public works projects, where applicable. Signs would be erected at the same time as infrastructure upgrades and new bridges, and at minimal cost to the state.
The bill would cost the Washington State Department of Transportation $21,000 over the current budget biennium and $16,000 annually for placing signs at four replacements per year, House Transportation Committee staff said.
If the bill passes, Washington State Parks would also be required to install a sign in memory of Zachary Rager on or near the bridge where he lost his life, at a cost of less than $1,000 for two signs.
The bill so far has garnered bipartisan support and sponsorship in the House, as well as unanimous buy-in from 20th Legislative District lawmakers Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, and Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, who has introduced a similar bill in the Senate.
Abbarno said the state has a responsibility to let its people know about the dangers of cold water shock and to educate the public on what they can do to avoid a potentially lethal situation.
“Zack drowned in the Chehalis River on a warm day in March, in a river he had jumped in countless times,” Abbarno told the House Transportation Committee. “The day he did jump — a sunny, warm day — it was unknown how cold that water was.”
“I really believe, based on the number of cold water shock drownings in the state of Washington, that Zack’s Law will save lives,” Abbarno continued.
Warm air doesn’t always mean warm water, according to the National Weather Service. Water temperatures as high as 55 degrees can be deadly, and quickly plunging into cold water of any temperature may become dangerous if swimmers aren’t prepared, both mentally and physically.
“Cold water drains body heat up to four times faster than cold air. When your body hits cold water, ‘cold shock’ can cause dramatic changes in breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. The sudden gasp and rapid breathing alone creates a greater risk of drowning even for confident swimmers in calm waters,” states information from the NWS.
Cold water shock can also impair a person’s ability to think and act, and swimmers often begin to hyperventilate.
Hines said Zachary was 208 pounds of muscle, was a state wrestler, had waded the river many times before and “wasn’t a weak swimmer.”
“But the difference this time was the river had changed,” he said.
Passing HB 1595 could also save the state on search and rescue efforts, Hines said. Many people already know the dangers of hypothermia, he said, but awareness of cold water shock isn’t as widely known.
“I believe it’s especially important here in Washington because, as you all know, we don’t get many summer days, and when the sun comes out, as it did March 23 of 2021, Washingtonians sunk it up,” said Kim Hines, Zack’s mother, fighting through tears.
“We live in a state that has glacier-fed rivers and streams. Cold water shock can happen in water that is 59 degrees. … If we can get these signs in place, and it saves even one person, then my son didn’t die in vain,” Hines continued.
Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls — who shortly before the Hines’ testimony said he had concerns that placing the signs in select locations would create a legal liability for the state — came around to “fully support” the bill after the family’s words.
“You educated me on something. I fell in water — a lake — when I was a kid, and everything described happened to me. I’m uneducated on cold water shock, so you’ve educated me and I want to thank you for that,” Sutherland said. “It was a traumatic experience. You can’t breathe, you gasp for air and you’re in trouble. Fortunately, I didn’t go under and I believe that’s probably why I’m here.”
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