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Should Coast Guard end push for mandatory life jacket wear? (Part 2)

The recent vote by the National Boating Safety Advisory Council to have the Coast Guard initiate a process leading to mandatory life jacket wear is a textbook case for: “Bring up the same thing over and over and you’ll eventually drive the answer you want!” (See last Tuesday’s Oct. 4 Dealer Outlook for background).

Ever since 2004, the USCG has been trying to get its NBSAC to come out in favor of a national mandatory life jacket wear requirement. It finally happened in April when NBSAC went over the edge by ignoring compelling arguments that such national regulations will likely be impractical to implement and are guaranteed to draw heavy fire from the nation’s boaters and marine industry. Moreover, in light of the current all-time record low boating fatalities, it’s reasonable to question the need to even consider such an unpopular policy.

One only needs to read the minutes of NBSAC meetings to glaringly see every one of the 21 NBSAC members knows the nation’s boaters won’t support this and are expected to push back against any such rulemaking. For example, a recent survey of BoatUS members found a whopping 90 percent of respondents opposed to such measures. It seems safe, then, to say NBSAC is not representative of the nation’s boaters. But there’s a great deal more.

The USCG originally claimed mandatory life jacket wear could save 300 or more lives annually. However, a work group chaired by NBSAC-member Richard Moore, a study model created by Dr. Dan Maxim of the USCG Auxiliary, and other considerations, eventually concluded that the number was more likely to be 70. The probability that drownings will be reduced is difficult to estimate empirically, Dr. Maxim reported. Further, Moore noted the data revealed the best way to prevent drowning deaths is to keep people in the relatively safe confines of an upright boat. He noted that education is an important component here. He warned that while wearing a lifejacket might reduce the chance of drowning, there were no guarantees.

One thing is guaranteed – if there is a national wear mandate, it will be confusion and chaos in the states that already have laws and regulations that can be cited as the major contributors to the record low boating fatalities picture. For example, more than 90 percent of states would require a legislative action to implement a national mandate recommended by NBSAC.  Further, Moore acknowledged that even if a mandatory regulations were passed, there was no assurance of “Vicksburg type” enforcement and education action by all the interested parties. Clearly, change would not take place without enforcement by state and local officers.

Moore’s reference was to the Corps of Engineers  test project of mandating life jacket wear on lakes in their Vicksburg and Pittsburgh Districts. It’s produced a mixed bag, at best. The USACE claims success in Vicksburg, albeit short on providing clear evidence. But it’s widely known as a complete failure in Pittsburg. There on Berlin Lake, mostly located in Ohio, the Ohio Division of Watercraft has refused to enforce the mandatory regulations. Ohio, like so many other states, has effective laws and regulations on the books covering children, PWCs, hand-powered vessels, hunters, etc. In fact, the NBSAC members were informed by Susan Balistreri, a consultant on life jacket design, that 56 U.S. states and territories already have laws on the books requiring PWC operators, riders and those being towed to wear life jackets; Forty states mandate life jackets on children under 13, 12 and under or under 12; Six states draw the line at 10 and under, under 10 or under 8; and four states specify age points at under 7 or under 6. Revising all these state laws would be like trying to sell cell phones to scuba divers. Moreover, lest one assumes a national mandate wouldn’t impact state waters, NBSAC estimates such regulations would cover about 80 percent of the nation’s waterways.

The USACE is also conducting a test program on Pine Flat Lake near Fresno, Calif. The one -season test will end October 31. It mandates everyone on all size vessels must wear life jackets, although the USACE is not enforcing it against people on houseboats. The local sheriff marine patrol is not enforcing the mandate at all, according to Pine Flat Lake Marina operator Keith Brockman. Still, he reports boaters have clearly reacted negatively by ignoring the mandate or simply avoiding Pine Flat altogether. That’s reflected in Brockman’s reduced gas sales and loss of slip rentals. And, it’s further confirmed by Donnie Lacefield at Lacefield-Bohner Marine in Madera: “Our customers say they’re avoiding the hassle by simply not going to Pine Flat Lake.”

Finally, NBSAC’s recommendation to set vessel length at 18 feet is the proverbial slippery slope. Former council member John Underwood was spot on when he said NBSAC should drop the idea of setting the length at 26 feet or 21 feet, lengths bound to draw great resistance from boaters. Staunchly opposed to any national mandate, Underwood correctly predicted that if the vessel length were initially set at 18 feet, the USCG could come back later and increase it!

Overall, the USCG is attempting to set a very unpopular course, as is the USACE whose test programs end soon and should never be brought back. But perhaps Cindy Squires, NMMA’s director of regulatory affairs, captured things best when she told the April NBSAC meeting that the boating industry has a long history of supporting safety and believes in mandatory education as the very best course. She further emphasized that during NBSAC’s search for justification of a national mandate, “you have only been talking to yourselves. No one has asked the boating public for input, there’s been no public debate,” she said.

Present law requires approved life jackets for everyone on board. Boaters agree with that. But it is the boaters who should rightfully make the decision as to when and under what local conditions they should wear them. In the end, shouldn’t this be left to making an educated personal choice on the scene?


11 comments on “Should Coast Guard end push for mandatory life jacket wear? (Part 2)

  1. Bob

    You posited the question: “shouldn’t this be left to making an educated personal choice on the scene?” The answer was yes, back when this was once a free country. We are constantly losing the freedom to make right and wrong decisions every day. I am sure this will eventually be another example of more freedom lost.



  3. Doug

    That’s what the marine industry needs right now — more regulations & restrictions throughout the nation, to overheat people in the sun, give them another reason to quit boating — to maybe save 70 lives per year. What’s next? Mandatory bimini tops on every boat to keep people from getting melanoma? Shoes with ground wires to keep us from getting hit by lightning?
    Who’s driving this nonsensical thinking? PFD lobbyists, or insurance companies?
    Leave us alone and let us go boating in the little time off that we have.

  4. Mike T

    Even the NRA does not recommend or require we wear bullet proof vests while hunting. If you remember the “OSHA Cowboy” cartoon, I am sure someone will draw up a NBSAC boater.
    Yes, the young need to wear PFDs, but let those over (a certain age decided by federal law) decide for themselves. I for one use an inflatable vest when offshore.

  5. 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.

  6. Eric

    I see no reason for people to not wear life vests. Every effort has been made to make life vests more comfortable and easy to wear. Inflatables make summer time wear easy and safe. Many hundreds of people die each year because they do not wear life vests. Each loss of life causes incredible cost to society and pain to families. The majority of boating related deaths can be prevented by simply wearing a life vest.

  7. CN

    Even more deaths could be prevented if people didn’t go into the water and/or knew how to get out of the water. Life jacket use should be a moot point. And yes, every life is important–I don’t think anyone is disputing that. But to mandate that the vast majority of the 80,000,000 + people who boat every year have to wear a life jacket at all times– to potentially save only a couple dozen lives–seems excessive. The expense of getting everyone in a jacket would be immense–no one would want to wear the horse collars that make up the majority of the required jackets.

  8. dave


    if it is truly about deaths….then simply do away with the alcohol…tens of thousands of directly related deaths every year on the roads, waters – everywhere…yet we really do nothing about that?

  9. Jack

    It is the individual’s choice not to wear a “PFD”. The items is required to be aboard by law,
    but we still have “choices” in America, not restrictions to our personal life!
    People go boating to have FUN, get a tan, & enjoy the outdoors. And, we are safer than ever!
    some stats: 95% of mechanically powered boats are less than 26 ft….
    Boating deaths hit record low for 2010/ “672”
    12.5 million registered recreational boats

    Boating is truly a family sport, enjoyable and usually has two or three generations aboard.
    Let us go forward with choices not unfounded government mandates.
    Let us continue to enjoy boating without restrictions on what to wear.

  10. vissionquest

    If laws depend on number of deaths, why isn’t someone chasing; mandatory parachutes for planes, removal of all trees at ski areas, mandatory home confinement for children, or cars that can not be operated while under the influence. All of these things might save someone, but at what cost to our society. The quality of life is directly related to the number of regulations that controll it.

  11. DJinNC

    Yes, any mandatory PFD proposed by the Coast Guard (except for small children) should be dropped. However, if you are a serious boater (smaller vessels) and give a darn about the safety of your passengers as well as your own, then you are an idiot not to voluntarily wear a PFD while underway. The safety equipment on my boat includes well made TYPE III PFDs in a range of sizes so that all can have one that fits correctly. I will not leave the dock until everybody has one on. In an emergency situation time is of the essence and the last thing I want to worry about in a man overboard situation or if the boat swamps and begins to capsize is finding and fitting everybody with a PFD. I would rather be relaying my position to the coast guard, activating the EPIRB, etc.

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