Growing traffic on Chicago River raises safety concerns

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It is National Safe Boating Week and the explosion in traffic on the main branch of the Chicago River has raised safety concerns. (WLS)

It is National Safe Boating Week and the explosion in traffic on the main branch of the Chicago River has raised safety concerns.

It is no longer the forgotten river it once was. The arrival of the Riverwalk and the explosion of recreational boats sometimes gives the Chicago River the feel of the Kennedy at rush hour. The river is a source of pride and fun, but it's not without risk.

"I'm extremely concerned that there'll be a problem," said Mike Borgstrom, president of Wendella Boats.

Tour boat operators say they've seen a constant increase in incidents they consider to be too close for comfort. A stark reminder of waterway risk came last summer on the Hudson River in New York City when a ferry boat hit a group of kayakers. Two were seriously injured. The sun had blocked the ferry captain's view.

Nothing like that has happened here, and there have been constant efforts to ensure it won't.

"I think it's common sense - that what we really need to do is look at common sense rules that are enforceable that make sense, that don't penalize people for having fun, but make sure we're all safe," said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of the Friends of the Chicago River.

"We have barge operators talking with kayak operators. That's never happened before, so to get everyone at the table to talk about it is a great first step. Now we have to act on it," said Borgstrom.

Last year the Chicago Harbor Safety Committee and companies that use and even compete on the river, came together on a series of safety recommendations. Some are fundamental. Little boats stay to the right. The big boys are in the center. Marine radios are vital. Rental companies like Urban Kayaks regularly use them.

The recommendations also include fines for negligent operators, an alcohol ban for human powered craft. Rental power boats with booze aboard must have a designated driver, and standardized training before someone shoves off in a rental boat they may not be familiar with. Those recommendations remain largely that, recommendations, but many of them are already being followed on the river as a matter of best practices for safety.

"I think those are the types of things that, yes, if the city gets behind that, it has a little more teeth," said Borgstrom.

There is no legislation pending, but awareness and self-policing are arguably at an all-time high.

"It is on purpose that we have a good safety record on the Chicago River because people are working together to make sure we maintain it," said Frisbie.

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