Tulsa woman floats idea for life-vest law
RHETT MORGAN / Tulsa World
Tulsa resident Laurie Watts is pushing for a life vest law for all Oklahoma boats. Her husband, Richard Watts, drowned on Keystone Lake when his boat capsized in 2005. He wasn’t wearing a life jacket.

By RHETT MORGAN World Staff Writer
Last Modified: 8/10/2008 3:11 AM

Three years ago, even before authorities could pull her drowned husband from Keystone Lake, Laurie Watts began beckoning for a life vest law that includes all Oklahoma boaters.

She's still stumping.

"I've been meeting with senators and running my mouth and yelling and screaming," said the Tulsan, whose spouse, Richard Watts, died when his boat capsized in 2005. "No one is listening to me."

She is hoping that changes soon.

Watts said her grief was rekindled last week by a Tulsa World story that detailed this year's surging drowning rate, which is the highest at federally managed Oklahoma lakes since 2000. Through Thursday, of the 19 people have drowned since the federal fiscal year began Oct. 1, only one was wearing a personal flotation device, according to data from the Tulsa District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Watts is trying this month to gather a small forum of state legislators in Tulsa to discuss amending Oklahoma statutes, which only require children under 13 — not adults — to wear a personal flotation device (PFD) whenever a vessel is under way. Each person on a personal watercraft must wear a life jacket.

"It's like a seat belt," she said. "If you CM8ShowAd("336x280");

don't have one on, you're more than likely going to die . . . This is going to get worse before it gets better."

Richard Watts, 42, didn't have PFD protection when his 15-foot bass boat was flipped by high winds at Keystone Lake on March 12, 2005.

His body and that of fellow Tulsa passenger Johnny Graves, who also wasn't wearing a life vest, were found about three weeks later. Both had drowned. Another vessel occupant, 12-year-old Lemiah Denny of Stilwell, who was wearing a PFD, died of hypothermia.

"They said that they had never seen swells on that lake before like that," Watts said of conversations with authorities. "It was like an 80-mph wind shear that they got hung up in."

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the percentage of boaters who drown as a result of not wearing a life jacket consistently falls between 85 percent and 90 percent. At lakes operated by the Tulsa District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, at least 159 people (nonboaters included) have drowned since 2000. Of those, only 12 (7.5 percent) were protected by a PFD.

Watts tools around in a 1985 Chevy Silverado pick-up, its back window scrawled with a message urging boaters to don a vest in honor of Richard Watts.

"I'm going to keep speaking because I don't want my husband to die in vain," she said. "I want something to change. I'm fighting for it as hard as I can."