Already this season, more James River users have been ticketed for not wearing life jackets than in all of 2011 or 2010. And it isn't even Memorial Day.
Anyone in the river, whether swimming or paddling, must wear a life jacket when the river's running 5 feet or higher, as measured at the Westham gauge. Police have ticketed nine people this year, all in May. Five were ticketed last year, and just one in 2010.
The fine is $100. The city also may charge violators for $155 per hour of rescue operations if they require assistance.
Is this the sign of a police crackdown? "There have not been any directives to officers to enforce the law any more so than previous years," police spokeswoman Dionne Waugh says in an email.
It may just be the prematurely warm weather. "This year started out a little bit early, and it started with a bang," Richmond Fire Department spokesman Lt. Robert Hagaman says.
River rescues are on the rise as well. In 2011, the Fire Department received just more than 80 calls for service to the river. About 40 resulted in rescues; the rest were categorized as "good intent" calls.
As of May 18, the department has received 32 river calls, Hagaman says. About half of those calls resulted in the firefighters assisting someone, he says. This year, more than 20 people have been pulled from the river.
On May 13, the rescue squad responded to a report of five people younger than 18 — one just 7 years old — stranded on a rock between Hollywood Rapids and Belle Isle. While the squad was helping them, two adults in distress drifted past. Police ticketed the two adults, but not the juveniles.
On May 15, the squad responded to a call about one person in trouble, then had to rescue two other people who tried to help the first one. Two people were ticketed in that incident.
Many river users plead ignorance of the life-jacket law, Hagaman says, but with signs posted everywhere and a new public-information campaign, that isn't a good excuse. He's troubled by the cavalier attitude among some people who expect the department to save them if something goes wrong.
"Not only is it taxing financially on the city's resources," he says, "but you could potentially lose your life."