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Hunting Accident File > Safe Hunting?: > 2004

Taking a stand for hunting safety

Sunday, December 26, 2004

RICHARD SCOTT

For The Birmingham News

Alabama deer hunters are apparently smarter and more careful when it comes to avoiding accidental shootings of other hunters. Now if they would only protect themselves better from tree stand accidents.

While firearms incidents continue to drop, the number of tree-stand incidents is on the rise because of so many preventable falls, state hunting safety officials say.

"All it takes is one fall and you can be crippled or dead," said Ray Metzler, hunter education coordinator for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. "I wear a restraint device in a tree stand for my two kids and my wife. I want to hunt safe and return home safe. I'll do whatever it takes to stay safe."

The Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries presents about 400 hunter safety classes each year in all 67 counties, offering a variety of safety lessons to about 12,000 students each year. According to state law, hunters born on or after Aug. 1, 1977, are required to pass a hunter education class.

"The incident rates have gone down significantly since the program became mandatory in 1993," Metzler said. "The past 10 years has been our safest decade."

According to state records, the number of firearms accidents so far this season is slightly down compared to previous years. So far three non-fatal firearms incidents have occurred, with no fatalities.

In the 2003-04 season, 11 firearms-related incidents occurred, with two fatalities. In the 2002-03 season, 23 firearms-related incidents occurred, with four fatalities.

In 1992-93, 31 such incidents were reported with seven fatalities. In 1984-85, 37 incidents occurred with 15 deaths, so the trend is headed in the right direction.

"Last year had been the safest we've had," Metzler said, "so we might beat that this year."

Any significant decline is positive news, but Metzler points out that the next two weeks potentially are the most dangerious of the deer season.

"There are two peak periods where there are always lots of people in the woods: the Thanksgiving holidays and the Christmas holidays," he said. "If we can make it through these next two weeks with just a handful of accidents, we'll be doing good."

While Alabama hunters seem to be learning some valuable lessons and making better choices when it comes to firearms, too many hunters continue to neglect tree stand safety.

Instead of going down, the number of reported tree-stand incidents is on the rise. After seven incidents and no fatalities in 2002-03 and nine incidents and one fatality in 2003-04, 11 incidents have been reported so far this season, with three fatalities. The number of incidents without fatalities could actually be higher, because not all the incidents are reported. Reports on firearms incidents, however, are required by law.

With all the effort the state puts into tree-stand safety, the rise in incidents is frustrating for Metzler.

"We try to spend a lot of time promoting tree-stand safety through our hunter ed course," he said. "I think we've done a good job of reducing the number of firearm accidents, but we still have too many tree-stand accidents."

One solution is for the state to make it illegal to use a tree-stand without a restraint device. If the state requires a seat belt for automobiles, why not tree stands?

That's not as simple as it sounds. The state simply does not have the manpower to police all the hunting land, Metzler said. The state tries to keep an eye on safety concerns in its wildlife management areas, where restraint devices are mandatory for tree stands, but there's too much private land to cover.

Also, the only way to determine whether a hunter is actually using a safety device is to approach him during a hunt. Imagine scouting out a big buck for several days, only to have a conservation officer scare that buck away as he checks for a safety device.

"We don't want to be in that situation," Metzler said.

Wearing a safety device of some kind is simply a matter of priorities. Hunters think nothing of spending thousands of dollars on guns, scopes, camouflage, boots, tree stands, ammunition and calls, let alone trucks and fees for hunting clubs. So an additional $60 to $70 for a seat belt that might save a hunter's life is relatively not much, Metzler said.

"Hunters spend a lot of time and money on their sport," he said. "They need to think the same way when it comes to spending money on safety."

Copyright 2004 al.com. All Rights Reserved.

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