CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- If West Virginia's deer seasons had an official color, it would be fluorescent orange.
Since 1983, when state law began requiring hunters to wear at least 400 square inches of fluorescent orange clothing during all firearm deer seasons, the Mountain State's woods have become a much safer place.
''Statistical trends show that the number of hunters being shot by other hunters is decreasing,'' says Lt. Col. Bill Daniel, assistant chief of Law Enforcement for the state Division of Natural Resources. ''The number of total hunting-related incidents began to fall off after the mandatory fluorescent orange regulation went into place.''
During the 14 deer seasons between 1969 and 1982, for example, hunters were involved in 202 shootings. Sixty-one of those shootings resulted in deaths, an average of 4.3 fatalities per year.
Since the fluorescent-orange law went into effect, law enforcement officials have noted a dramatic change in hunting-related injuries.
Most of today's wounds are self-inflicted, either from accidental firearm discharges or from sloppy gun handling. Most of today's fatalities stem from heart attacks and falls from tree stands.
''Two-party shootings are getting rarer,'' Daniel says.
In the 17 deer seasons since hunters began wearing orange, 41 fatal incidents have occurred. Of those, 16 resulted from heart attacks and nine resulted from self-inflicted wounds or accidental discharges.
''Our accident statistics have changed dramatically since 1990,'' Daniel says. ''That's when we began requiring hunter safety education classes for all first-time hunters. Before then, we basically just reported shooting incidents. After that, we began recording all hunting-related health and safety incidents, whether a firearm or bow was involved or not.''
Daniel says the woods appear to be significantly safer now than they've ever been.
''Just look at the average number of shooting-related fatalities,'' he says. ''That should tell you something.''
From the dismal pre-1983 average of 4.3 shooting-related fatalities per deer season, the average since 1990 has dropped to 1.3.
Of the 13 deaths reported in that 11-year period, only six fit into that classic ''mistaken-for-game'' category so typical during the pre-hunter-education period.
''I think the fluorescent-orange law has helped hunters to avoid two-party shootings,'' Daniel says. ''Now, if we could just get them to quit doing stupid things with their firearms, we'd just about have the problem licked.''
Seven of the 13 deaths reported since 1990 either were self-inflicted or were caused when loaded firearms accidentally discharged.
''If people would just take care to keep their guns' safeties on, or would take the time to unload their firearms before they stow them in their vehicles, we'd see far fewer of those types of incidents,'' Daniel says.
If that ever happens, law enforcement officials might find themselves having almost nothing to report.
Already, conservation officers are reporting on things they'd never even considered reporting before.
''In the past few years, we've started keeping track of heart attacks and falls from tree stands, two things we'd never looked at before,'' Daniel says. ''As soon as we saw significant numbers of fatalities coming from those sources, we started logging them.''
Since 1996, DNR administrators have recorded 11 falls from tree stands, one of which was fatal.
Since 1998, 16 hunters have died after suffering heart attacks.
''Now that we're seeing the trends, we're incorporating preseason conditioning and tree-stand safety into our hunter safety education classes,'' Daniel says. ''Maybe, if we can let our hunter-safety students know what people are dying from out there, they'll take some steps to prevent those things from happening to them.
''Unfortunately, the sorts of things that are killing our hunters nowadays are things that can't be legislated away. Once you teach people gun safety, you can't force them to be safe gun handlers. You can tell them about tree-stand safety, but you can't make them wear safety harnesses. And you can warn them to be in shape, but you can't get in shape for them.'' More
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