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Should Coast Guard end push for mandatory life jacket wear? (Part 1)

Kudos to the Coast Guard  for moving with great speed late last week to publish a proposed rulemaking that could lead to new standards for inflatable life jacket wear by individuals under the age of 16 (see all details in last Dealer Outlook, Sept. 29.)

The swift action clearly reflects the view stated by Rear Admiral Kevin Cook, USCG’s director of prevention policy, when he recently announced the record low boating fatalities for 2010. “I am optimistic that the number of deaths and injuries can continue to be reduced further because of the strong commitment to safe boating from our partners in the states, non-government advocacy groups and the boating industry,” he said.

Indeed, as boating participation continues to grow and fatalities are the lowest on record, moves like examining standards for inflatable life jackets make real sense. In fact, promoting innovation in life jackets through enhanced wearer comfort, style and increasing technological advances are stated objectives in the USCG’s new five-year strategic plan. Moreover, the strategic plan foresees other programs to increase life jacket wear. For example, provide boat manufacturers with collateral literature on life jackets to be given end users with owner’s manuals and similar materials, and encourage all within the boating safety community (education groups, law enforcement officers, retail dealers, etc.) to regularly demonstrate and educate boaters about the comfort and benefits of inflatable jackets, among others.

In essence, the boating industry and the USCG are on the same page when it comes to the desire for increased life jacket wear and encouraging technological developments and standards  improvements. The industry also supports mandatory wear for children, PWC operators and in specific high risk situations, for example, cold water boating in small open vessels where hypothermia can quickly set in.

But the industry stands strongly opposed to the USCG’s desire to mandate national wear regulations, a divisive issue that’s been around since the USCG first asked its National Boating Safety Advisory Council back in 2004 to recommend mandatory wear for people in boats less than 21 feet. NBSAC said no and continued to say no until last spring.

In April, NBSAC, considered by some to be a “stacked” 21-member panel, voted 16-5 to recommend the USCG: (1) Initiate a process leading to mandatory life jacket regulations for all aboard boats less than 18 feet, all canoes, kayaks, row boats, PWCs and persons towed for watersports; (2) Gauge public sentiment regarding such mandatory requirements; (3) Streamline life jacket testing and approvals to make improved and less costly jackets available to boaters faster; and (4) Give proper consideration to approval of alternative life jackets and buoyant devices like Level 50 devices approved in Europe.

Notably, NBSAC’s vote does not, at this point, make any mandatory regulations eminent. But it surely gives those within the USCG bent on getting mandatory regulations a green light to spend valuable resources pushing this issue when, in fact, they should really be dropping it altogether.
Why do I say that? First, the USCG has many good ideas to promote increased life jacket wear and they should be doing them. Mandatory wear isn’t one, however. Heightened education initiatives in the USCG’s five-year strategic plan, in partnership with educational, state, safety and industry groups is the right place to put limited resources these days.

Second, there are compelling arguments that any national mandate of this kind will be a ticket to chaos on the nation’s waterways. You need to view those arguments and I plan to spell them out here in Thursday’s (Oct. 6) Dealer Outlook . . . so you can make up your own mind.


14 comments on “Should Coast Guard end push for mandatory life jacket wear? (Part 1)

  1. Tom Petersen

    Life, in general, has risks and accident can, and do, happen!

    Just because someone wears a life jacket does not guaranteed they will not suffer an accident. At the same time, not wearing a life jacket does not automatically increase your odds of having an accident either!

    Safe boating is a mindset not a mandate. If we are trying to reduce all boating accidents we need to remove all propellers, drain the lakes, not allow flamable fuels such as gasoline, etc.

    The gentleman who died coming a year or so ago after a serious broach in Jupiter Sounds died because of hitting his head, not because he drowned without a life jacket.

    Safe Boating education and good common sense overrules mandates of wearing a lifejacket.

  2. onis watson

    Requiring life jackets will be the death blow to an already reeling industry. Every time we have a downturn the government either adds a luxury tax, more user laws and we continue to decline as a industry , then when we a almost
    totally bust then we retreat and start over again. Truly sad

  3. JM

    There are plenty of documented incidents each year of people that would not have drowned had they had their life jackets on. The old addage, if you have them, what good are they if you aren’t wearing them is true. Why would this be a death blow to the industry? Hogwash (IMO). Mandatory seat belts didn’t deliver a blow to the auto industry. Sometimes this anti government stuff just goes too far. There can be sensible regulations for some boaters, on certain boats under certain conditions.

  4. Jack Pillsbury

    You can not legislate common sense. I will agree, life jackets for small children in a boat under way makes sense, and I make sure my grandchildren do wear them. I, however enjoy most of my boating in the summer when I do my boating in a bathing suit. I will give up boating when the life jacket law comes….. and I am in the business. I don’t think I will be alone if this comes to be.

  5. C. Moore

    When is DOT going to start regulating & requiring manditory seat belts & complete airbags systems in RV’s?
    When will DOT start Holiday safety inspections of RV’rs like those that happen to boaters every Holiday weekend?
    There are plenty of documented incidents each year of people that would not have been injured in RV’s if they had full airbag systems & seat restraints like cars. Right JM?
    Non compliance of seat belt use by a vast majority of occupants in cars brought pasive restraint systems (air bags) in cars today.

  6. bpante

    The Coast Guard is looking for another REVENUE SOURCE.

    I spent 21 years in the Coast Guard. They do many good things. Like any government agency they are always looking to expand their bureacraticy. As if they already don’t have enough to do. When I was on a Coast Guard Cutter I wore a life jacker as requierd by my employers rules. On my own boat I absolutely refuse, It is my boat and UNAMERICAN for them to try to force me to wear one.

    I don’t even agree with mandatory wear for children. On my boat I had a rule when you learn to swim you don’t have to wear it. Only later to have a grand daughter say I lied to her when that law was passed because she again had to wear it.

    I would also like to add every someone drowns in a pool, pond, or bathtub thay count that as a boating fatality.

    The government can’t even enforce the laws we have. We are over run by 30 million ILLEGALS. They are taking our jobs, bankrupting our schools and hospitals. Get that fixed before you even think about passing any new laws.


    Another dumb law that will only be enforced where there is a coast guard patrol boat. other parts of the country could care less. We in the Ohio valley seldom see a CC patrol, and the DNR only on weekends so what does it matter. By the way i want my parachute next time I fly airlines. And my fire suit and race helmet when I drive, and since I may fall out of bed, how about 4′ pad under the carpet.

  8. MBuhler

    To put things in a bit of perspective, according to the “preliminary” National Vital Statistics Reports for 2009 published by the Centers for Disease Control, 2,436,652 people died in the U.S. in 2009, the vast majority from diseases, infections and other medical problems. Hundreds of thousands of those deaths, of course, were preventable “lifestyle” deaths, but no protective healthy lifestyle behaviors are mandated. Accidental deaths made up only 117,176, or less than 5%, of the total deaths. Accidental drownings or submersions accounted for only 3,539 of the accidental deaths. According to the Coast Guard’s figures for 2010, there were a total of 672 boating accident fatalities from all causes. Of those, 484 were drowning fatalities. Of those 484 boating accident drowning fatalities, 57 victims were reported to be wearing a life jacket, 395 were reported to not be wearing a life jacket, and 32 were reported as “unknown”.

    While every individual human life is precious, the number of boating accident drowning fatalities where a life jacket was not worn is not even a statistical blip of all accidental deaths, much less of all deaths. There are undoubtedly better, more effective, more cost efficient, and less intrusive ways for the federal and state governments to save 500 lives a year than mandating the wearing of life jackets, enforcing the mandate, and making criminals out of and penalizing boaters who fail or refuse to comply with the mandate. They clearly need to examine their priorities. I leave to others to comment on the effect that mandating life jacket use would have on the level of participation in recreational boating, and ultimately on the recreational boating industry.

  9. bpante

    In response to MBuhler If they were really intrested in saving lives they would not have barriers on highways. Far more accidents happen in the vicinity of toll booths than anywhere else. It’s all about the money.

  10. TK

    It’s a matter of wise use of limited resources. Wearing life jackets saves lives, no question–but, do we want to waste scarce dollars to reduce an already miniscule number of deaths? There are over 38 million registered boats in the U.S. and we have approx. 600 deaths per year. Let’s move on to something else.

    Who’s going to enforce the law? Certainly not the Coast Guard. Should we expect state officers to enforce it? Doesn’t this mean that each state will have to legislate mandatory wear? OR does the CG want to take over state jurisdiction? Would this mean, down the road, that they want to Federalize all state boating law officers? No two states will legislate mandatory wear exactly the same. That could mean when I cross a state line I’d be subject to a different set of jurisdictional requirements.

  11. Boat Broker

    Government regulations – especially the ones being imposed under the guise of “our protection” – are spinning out of control at a rate never before experienced in this country, and we are losing liberties by the boat load! It’s sad and pathetic that these types of groups and czars are dictating our liberties away, without so much as an ounce of input from the public. The marine industry here in Lake Havasu Arizona is going to be fighting this mandate push tooth and nail. There’s also a Facebook page that’s dedicated to the subject of the Life Jacket Mandate.

  12. Boat Broker

    By the way, great coverage on this very important issue, Norman Shultz. Looking forward to the next installment.

  13. ted degarmo

    onis watson has it right, there are people in high places that don<t want you on the water and its getting really serious quickly, i know of many folks that will give up boating if this law passes, anyone who wants to wear a pfd is free to do so. they want you at home watching their agenda on tv. our marina is down by 80 percent this will be the final nail.

  14. Chris Holtz

    This is a fine example of why we need a smaller government. Remember those lovely words
    “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”? Those words ring true in the past and especially now.
    ‘Get off our backs!” is more to the point. An ever-growing bureaucracy does little but demand more cash from the citizenry. Isn’t it time to put the brakes on government?

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