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Mother's death on a rafting trip inspires 'helmet bill' in Oregon

Tucker Park is a popular spot on Hood River to lauch rafts and kayaks. Photo by Catherine Van.

This will be the second year Shawna Wellman celebrates Mother’s Day without her mother. Choking back the tears, she remembers the painful moments leading up to her death.

Just three weeks shy of her retirement, Sharon Birge died on an introductory rafting trip on the Deschutes River she took with her family two summers ago.

“The second rapid we went through, the boat tipped sideways. My mom was thrown forcefully from one side of the raft to the other. She hit her head on something,” said Wellman.

Birge’s brain began to swell, and she died 10 days later.

“The doctors at OHSU said if she had a helmet on, she should be alive today,” said Wellman.

Helmets, she says, were never offered to her family by the company. She says the requirement should be common sense.

“It seems so simple now; it's not something we would have thought about,” said Wellman. “It makes me upset and sad, and it makes me want to do something so no one else will have to go through this.”

Senate Bill 643 is her answer. The bill would require any outfitter and guide to offer helmets to passengers on waters rated Class III or above. Rapids are ranked on a class scale of 1 to 6, with 6 being the most challenging.

Zach Collier already offers helmets to his passengers, but he says it wouldn't make sense to force them to wear one.

“Sometimes it's unsafe. If it's super warm, it can create heat injuries.”

Collier owns Northwest Rafting Company. He says in his 20 years of guiding, he has never had anyone get a head injury.

“If they were to create a law requiring people to wear PFDs is more effective in terms of saving lives,” he said.

Not having a PFD (Personal Flotation Device, or life jacket) is the second most common cause of death in water, according to American Whitewater, a nonprofit organization that maintains the American Whitewater Safety Code. Out of the 21 causes of death, head injuries are ranked 16th, and caused 4 percent of deaths from 1975-2016. The number one cause, is cold water.

While offering helmets are important, Collier says there are other risks more concerning.

“What would help keep people safe is wearing a wetsuit if it's cold, wearing a PFD, and not drinking on the river.”

Currently, SB 643 is sitting in the rules committee. It will have to get passed by both the Senate and House before it can become law.

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