Rep. Abbarno seeks to prevent cold-water drownings through Zack’s Law; prefiles legislation for 2022 session

When the 2022 legislative session convenes on Monday, Jan. 10, Rep. Peter Abbarno will press forward with legislation that seeks to prevent cold-water shock drownings through signage at bridges and along waterways throughout Washington state.

On Dec. 6, the 20th District lawmaker prefiled House Bill 1595, also known as “Zack's Law.” The legislation is named after Zachary Lee Rager, an 18-year-old Centralia man who drowned from cold-water shock after jumping into the Chehalis River from a train trestle on the Willapa Hills Trail. Rager had jumped from the bridge several times before, but didn't realize how cold the water would be when he jumped into the river on March 23, 2021.

“Many people really don't know or understand the seriousness of cold-water shock. Even on a warm, sunny day in the spring or fall in the Pacific Northwest, an experienced swimmer may be unaware of the danger cold-water shock can have on their body. This legislation seeks to change that by educating, informing, and warning people about the risk of diving or jumping into cold water. It's about saving lives,” said Abbarno, R-Centralia

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the body responds to cold-water immersion with an increased heartbeat and blood pressure, faster breathing, uncontrolled gasping, and sometimes uncontrolled movement. Lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes, the cold-shock response can be deadly by itself. Victims may panic, take on water in that first uncontrolled gasp, and as many as 20% die in the first two minutes. An average of 200 people die each year because of cold-water immersion.

Zack's Law would require state government agencies and local governments to erect signs on or near bridges and along waterways to warn people of cold-water shock and drowning hazards. Signs would be erected at the same time upgrades are made to bridges and other water-adjacent infrastructure so there would be no significant costs to taxpayers. The legislation also creates a mechanism for the public to donate funds to the state for the purpose of erecting signs warning of cold-water shock hazards along Washington waterways.

On Sept. 29, Abbarno and Rager's family gathered at the old railroad bridge along the Chehalis River in Lewis County where the young man drowned to announce the legislation.

“My son was an all-around amazing kid,” said Lee Hines, Zack's stepfather. “He did everything he could to help everybody. After learning how many lives he touched, we knew we had to keep doing something for him to continue touching other lives and making a difference. If this means his loss is saving somebody else's life, that's what we are pursuing.”

Additionally, the bill directs the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission to install a sign in memory of Rager on or near the Willapa Hills Trail railroad bridge that provides information about the hazards of cold-water shock.

“No family should have to go through such a tragedy like this one. Zack's accident was entirely preventable,” said Abbarno. “Had Zack known about the frigid water and its dangers, he might still be alive today. With proper signage at these locations, other families might not have to suffer a similar loss.”

Abbarno says his legislation has bipartisan support, as evidenced by having five Democratic and five Republican co-sponsors. The measure will be referred to a committee once the 2022 session begins. Abbarno says he intends to seek an immediate public hearing to move the legislation forward.

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Washington State House Republican Communications
houserepublicans.wa.gov