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Coast Guard wrestles with PFD issue

Statistics show highest drowning risk is among operators of small powerboats

Millions have been spent educating boaters to wear life jackets, but most are no more likely to do that today than a decade ago.

That’s an abysmal record, says Capt. Scott Evans, Coast Guard chief of boating safety. “All those millions of dollars and all that effort,” he says, but in most sectors of pleasure boating the wear rate for PFDs hasn’t changed much.

The Coast Guard knows this because it sends observers out on docks, piers and boats to count the number of boaters wearing PFDs on the water. Evans sees a few bright spots: 97 percent of PWC operators wear a life jacket, though the law says they have to, and 82 percent of kayakers wear them voluntarily. But among those who go out in open powerboats — the ones who account for most of the accidental boat-related drownings — the wear rate is a dismal 4 percent.

“How can we fix this?” Evans asked, at a PFD workshop at the Miami International Boat Show in February.

Worried by a sharp uptick in boating deaths, the Coast Guard is looking for ways to get boaters to wear life jackets. But even before the workshop opened, some boaters — worried they might be forced to wear a PFD every time they go out, even on flat seas or in a 50-foot trawler — were calling for the Guard to exercise restraint and not adopt across-the-board mandatory-wear rules.

“Sailors are dead-set against it,” said Bob Black, an industry veteran who represented sailors at the workshop. He presented the PFD Manufacturers Association, a co-sponsor of the event, with a sheaf of printed e-mails from his constituents opposing a mandatory PFD rule.

“It remains for the skipper to run a safe ship and exercise responsible judgment as to when the use of PFDs should be made mandatory to the crew, whether racing or cruising,” wrote Ray Tostado, a racing sailor. “I would propose that 95 percent of all CG rescues are of the cruiser variety. They are notoriously unprepared when they go to sea, having been educated no further into the safe methods of seamanship than it takes to make their monthly bank payments.”

Wrote Stephen Orosz, another sailor: “PFDs are valuable, and people should wear them, but a one-size-fits-all law makes no sense whatsoever.”

The 2002 accident statistics show that of 442 boat-related drownings in which the victim wore no life jacket, 307 were associated with open powerboats and just 11 with sailboats, Orosz noted. “Education is working, and the problem is relatively small,” he said. “Keep it in perspective.”

Ted Rose, president of the Marine Trades Association of Maryland, is also against mandating PFDs. “ [It] would be one more barrier to entry [into boating], one more barrier to the new boater,” Rose said. His organization supports education ahead of more regulation.

The Coast Guard is concerned that in 2002 boating fatalities rose to 750, the highest number since 1998. Seventy percent, or 524 of the 750 deaths, were drownings. Nearly 85 percent, or 442, of the drowning victims weren’t wearing a life jacket.

“Our goal is to increase PFD wear,” said the Coast Guard’s Evans, who isn’t wed to the idea of mandatory-wear rules. In fact, he hoped spokesmen for kayakers and canoeists might shed some light on why their wear rates are so good. “I don’t know what it is you’re doing right,” he said.

Gordon Black of the American Canoe Association said his organization spreads the gospel of PFD wear at every opportunity. “We do believe education is the key,” he said. He said his association requires everyone in its programs and everyone pictured in its publications to wear a life jacket, except in some training situations.

ACA supports mandatory PFD wear for children, but thinks adult use of PFDs should be left up to the individual, he said. He said among paddlers there’s no stigma attached to wearing a PFD — they think it’s “cool.” PFDs designed for paddling are comfortable to wear, stylish, and often incorporated into clothing.

The statistics suggest that operators of small powerboats who don’t wear a PFD are most at risk of drowning, said Chris Edmonston of the BoatU.S. Foundation. He said one of three who die on the water are hunters or anglers. The average victim’s profile is, by and large, male, more than 50 years old, not wearing a PFD, and fishing or hunting from a small, open powerboat.

Bernice McArdle, executive director of the PFD Manufacturers Association, said these folks tend to buy the cheapest life jacket they can find to meet Coast Guard carriage requirements, but these flotation devices are uncomfortable, “uncool” and clearly not purchased for wear while under way. She said this group needs to learn that it’s OK to wear a PFD, and should spend money on models that are comfortable and look good so they are worn.

“Would you pay $1,000 for your engine?” she asks. “Isn’t your life worth more than 50 bucks?” She said a good, wearable PFD is as vital as a good, reliable engine, and it must be worn.

Smartrisk, a 2003 Canadian study of PFD use, found that boating accidents often happen too quickly for those on board to grab a life jacket. The study said that marine police in Rhode Island demonstrated this by “betting” boaters they couldn’t locate, don and fasten a PFD within 30 seconds. In fact, most couldn’t. “It’s like trying to locate a seat belt before a car crash,” the study said.

Ted Wooley, a former boating law administrator from Utah, noted that in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a helmet law for bicyclists increased its use from 36 percent before the law to 86 percent two years later. “Sometimes regulation is what it takes to get it off of dead center,” he said. “Education doesn’t always work.”

Smartrisk found that Canadian boaters don’t wear their PFDs because they perceive, in descending order of importance, that drowning is a low risk for them and PFDs restrict movement, PFDs are uncomfortable and unattractive, and PFDs signal to others that the wearer is fearful.

McArdle proposed some measures to educate boaters in PFD wear:

• Distribute an industry-produced video to boating safety classes that helps overcome stereotypes that all PFDs are cumbersome and clunky-looking, and “uncool” to wear. “We show that people are having fun, and they are wearing their life jacket,” she said. “The idea is that you put it on, you don’t mind putting it on, and you keep it on.”

• Involve boating media in promoting PFD use, and persuade them to adopt a policy of using photos that show boaters wearing PFDs.

• Involve public figures in PFD campaigns. McArdle said she is working on engaging teen idols Nick Carter, of the music group Backstreet Boys, and brother Aaron — both avid boaters, to speak to youngsters; actor John Amos, of the popular “West Wing” television program, to speak to older boaters; and venerable fisherman Ray Scott, founder of Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, to speak to anglers about wearing PFDs.

The Smartrisk study sparked rumors that Canada was going to require everyone to wear a PFD while under way, and that the United States may soon follow. That touched off a lively debate on personal choice in the online sailing newsletter Scuttlebutt until the rumors were quelled.

McArdle doubts a mandatory-wear law is in the cards. “It probably would get a lot of resistance from all groups,” she said. “It’s not like seat belts where you’ve got one kind of vehicle operating in one set of conditions.”