A View from Here

Bill's Sisson's weekly Trade Only blog

PFDs and the nanny state

Broad-based mandatory life jacket wear rules — mandatory as in for all boaters, on all pleasure boats, regardless of size, across the board — are misguided. It’s like hunting squirrels with an elephant gun. Not only is it overkill, but I’m also not sure they will accomplish what well-meaning safety advocates hope they will.

I don’t mean to sound like a Pollyanna, but the sort of behavioral change needed to reduce boating fatalities is best accomplished through education. If you and your buddy and your 90-pound black Lab are hunkered down in an aluminum skiff in January shooting sea ducks and you’re not wearing a life jacket — well, you had better be able to walk on water if you wind up in the drink. That happens every year, too often with tragic consequences. Somewhere the educational process failed that crew. Or perhaps they chose to ignore good advice and common sense.

But that doesn’t mean you should penalize the majority of experienced boaters who can recognize when it’s appropriate to put on a PFD and when it’s fine to leave it in its locker. Slip and fall on a 40-foot trawler, and you’re more likely to be treated for banging your noggin on a step or a stanchion than be fished out of the water.

Boats aren’t cars, and life jackets aren’t seat belts. It’s apples and oranges. There’s far too much variation in size and type of vessel, how they’re used and the wide range of conditions for a one-size-fits-all solution. That’s why education is so critical. Sound judgment and good decision-making are key elements of seamanship.

One shouldn’t overlook, either, the strong sense of personal freedom that boating affords so many people. The feeling that you are the captain of your ship, small as she may be, and that you willingly accept the responsibilities that go with it. Traditionally it has been an activity that rewards self-reliance and resourcefulness.

I think we all hope boating can remain an antidote to the nanny state and not just the latest manifestation of it. We need to preserve a place in this shrinking world where capable people are still permitted to make the right call.

I am an avid small boater, and my kids know they have to wear their life jackets without exception when we are under way. Once we’re swinging on the hook and the engine is off, they’re free to take off them off, which they usually do with relish. But they’ve also been brought up with the mantra “one hand for the boat, and one hand for yourself.”

They have more than a rudimentary understanding of currents and the effects that wind and tide have on sea conditions. And against their youthful braggadocio and sense of immortality, I remind them — more often than they care to hear — about the insidious nature of cold water (in the summer, too) and how even they, invincible as they believe they are, will eventually tire of treading water without a flotation device of some kind. I pray some of it will stick.

Having written more articles than I can recall about folks who for one reason or another did not survive a boating accident, I understand well the dangers of winding up in the water with nothing but a wing and a prayer. When that happens the odds are not in your favor. That brings us back to seamanship, preparation and prevention. To education.

The No. 1 priority when you’re operating a boat is the safety of the crew. The best way to keep the regulators off our backs is for all of us to practice good judgment and prudence when we’re on the water. We don’t want well-meaning do-gooders writing tickets for not wearing a Mae West in the cockpit of a 30-foot express boat on a bluebird day.

As an industry we should recognize the good intentions behind some of the PFD proposals bobbing around out there, even as they miss the mark. We all want to save lives, but no one wants overregulation, especially when there are other alternatives. You can’t legislate common sense or situational awareness. You need to teach it.

There is a place on our waters where rules are warranted and a place where regulation is not. For life jackets specifically, a continued focus on education, on affordable and comfortable devices that encourage wear, and on better enforcement of PFD carriage requirements can be part of the solution. Is there room for improvement? Sure there is. But any tinkering has to be done with a scalpel, not a mallet.

A sailing dinghy is not a lobster yacht. A PWC is not a 28-foot center console. And zipping across the lake on a calm afternoon is not the same as being offshore alone at night. One size fits all is not the answer.


13 comments on “PFDs and the nanny state

  1. Bill Kenner

    When boating loses the personal freedom aspect or the “Getting away from it all” enjoyment of boating, people will simply choose to stop boating or using the lakes and rivers. less hassel to just sit at your backyard pool or watch tv. The “nanny state” will invalidate boating as a recreational activity.

  2. jj.marie

    while i agree with Bill’s comments , i am not aware of any movement to mandate the wear of life jackets on all boats at all time.
    The only action i am aware of is the recent recommendation of the National Boating Safety Advisory council (NBSAC)- to the Coast Guard recommending the wear of life jackets on open boats under 18ft while under way. This is a very narrow range , and one where most accidents occur. PWC’s already have mandatory wear.

  3. Brian Barbo

    This is the same debate as mandatory seat belts and motorcycle helmets. Common Sense is not common at all, and Big Brother will never be able to protect all the fools from themselves. The Orwellian response of dumbing down the world to the least common denominator is not my preferred approach. What ever happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Oh yeah, too many ambulance-chasing lawyers — it must be somebody else’s fault, so they’ll need to pay.

  4. Hank

    Bill you make some good remarks and arguments for your position and I do not completely disagree; but what you do not fully take into account is that everyone on the water has not had the benefit of a knowledgeable, loving, caring parent having taught them. I believe too that more education should be required for anyone getting on the water for a sporting activity. Things happen much to quickly; even on the most disarming of Blue Bird Days. I have been fortunate that after more than 5 decades around and on the water that I have learned from the “school of hard knocks”; having been put into the water a half dozen times and having had a few boats try to sink and or catch fire. I know life jackets are uncomfortable, at least the “Mae West” and normal recreational styles, and I made the personal decision to wear a auto-inflating life jacket whenever on the water except sailboarding and then I wear a manual inflation vest. These are comfortable during any activity that I participate in on the water. Mandatory education…licensing (yes I know) are the key to preventing unnecessary loss of life and injuries, but will never completely solve the ” the intense Darwin Drive” of some individuals. Education and experience is the solution. Enforcement of current safety requirements and regulation are necessary due to the crowded nature of our lakes, rivers, and coastal areas.

  5. Dave

    Great comments! This is another law that our enforcement officers don’t have the budget or desire to enforce! Makes me ashamed of our lawmakers. It is hard to regulate stupid-ness however we should let our police spend their time catching criminals. People die on airplanes too, what’s next? Mandatory parachutes on airplanes?

  6. Gene

    Hank hit it on the head,Mandatory education and licensing is the way to go. Too many people with big bucks just buy a boat because it’s either “cool” or a status symbol. After 40 plus years in boating with boats ranging from 14 ft. to 44 ft. I have seen every idiot and every stupid thing possible on the water. My guess is that 90 % of these stupid things would be eliminated with a little education and common sense.

  7. vissionquest

    This recent flurry of PFD discussion was created by a decission to also make PFD’s mandatory when swimming. If this does not show that legislators wouldn’t know a bad idea if it was drowning them.

  8. Jack Hern

    Very good article-well done.
    Mandatory PFD wear is a major threat to pleasure boating.
    This would have a major impact.
    Boaters already have too many hassles to overcome and many other recreational
    opportunities exist.
    The size, 18 ft, is not significant, because we all know that it will be increased.
    The statistics prove our point, 400 drownings with 82 million people involved in boating!
    And for 2010 we were safer than ever!

  9. bpante

    They tried before and backed off to children under a certain age. Even that I don’t agree with, my children and grandchildren are all excellent swimmers, less motivation for my great grandaughter to learn to swim. This time they are so confident they are going to get it they are working on the next step. If you are driving a boat you have to have the engine lanyard connected to you or you get a ticket.

    They go to such extremes all drownings even in pools, ponds, & hot tubs are counted as boating accidents to force this through. It is all about control and getting your hard earned money. If they were really intrested in saving lives they wouldn’t have barricades (toll booths) on superhighways.

    I’m glad I’m as old as I am. They are destroying my country.

  10. Sean P


    Great discourse. The number 1 priority of the captain is safety of the crew, and those considerations should be left to the captain of the vessel alone, not to legislators or law enforcement officers. Not only do law enforcement officers have enough to deal with, but to write citations for these issues will lead only to disenchantment of said authority.

  11. doug

    JJ.marie is correct, the government is only considering mandatory PFD use for boats under 18 feet. But even that is dumb. Because I own a boat that is 18ft 6 inches, I will not be affected by this rule. But how many times do you think I will get stopped by a nice Law Enforcement Official, who will argue me about the lenght of my boat until we get out the tape measure?

    Yes mandatory life jacket rule will save lives. What will the cost be? The $ cost of outfitting everyone with jackets is not high. The high cost comes in an area that is not quantifiable by the safe boating interests: personal freedom.

    Even with this rule, peoplw will still die because the rule does not deal with the causal events/factors involved in deadly boating accidents. These are (at least): poor piloting, current, water temp, speed, age, alcohol, poor visiblity/night vision/lighting, and stupidity while during water sport (sking, wake boarding diving).

    Over 50 years, I’ve personally seen seen, or seen what was left of the boats involved, in the following “events” on our lake:

    1. Two teenage girls (wearing PFDs) killed when their 12 foot rowboat was run over by a drunk driving a speed boat. Factors involved: it was late evening dusk, poor navigaion lights on the rowboat and durnk navigator who looked away for his drink. I was about a mile away from this little event and helped pull the boats to shore after the police left the scene.
    2. Teenage male waterskier who had fallen, run over by boater “giving chase”. Factors involved: alcohol, speed and following too closely. Waterskier was wearing a PFD. I will never forget that vest. In big letters it said “designed for impact up to 55 mph”. I guess it meant designed for a water impact of 55 mph…. clear water and blood everywhere.
    3. Couple on small cuiser crushed to death when run over by larger speed boat. Factors: alcohol, dim lights on cruiser, excessive speed in fog. This couple was inside the cabin, and would not have been required to wear a PFD. I was on shore for this one, only saw what was left of the boats involved. The boat never sank, the couple never left the cabin.
    4. Teen age boy, wearing life jacket, die of hypothermia half a mile off shore when canoe tiped over. Factors involved: poor piloting skills, water temp in the 40s, stupidity….family renting the house next to our cottage did not have a clue how cold the water was on Memorial Day….

    None of these people would have been saved by this proposed rule. They were all either wearing a PFD already, or would not have been required to have been wearing one.

    What a joke.

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