Life-jacket bill sinks in Maine

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Legislator withdraws the proposal after finding a negative reaction from the boating community

A bill that would have required all Maine boaters to wear life jackets was recently withdrawn.

Democratic Rep. Thomas Watson proposed the bill with the support of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association and the Coast Guard Auxiliary Power Squadrons. But he withdrew the bill in March because of the negative reaction it received and the broadness of its construction, says Watson.

“I knew there would be an outright rejection, and I didn’t want the headline to run in the papers ‘Maine vetoes life jacket bill,’ ” says Watson. “It would be like the government saying we don’t have to wear seatbelts anymore.”

People think life jackets and think those big, bulky orange vests, says Watson.  “But there’s all different kinds now: the suspender style where you can put them on and forget it, and a belt type.”

The bill had some exemptions, including commercial fishing vessels, whale-watching tours, Coast Guard crafts — which are bound to their own safety regulations — and a powerboat ferrying passengers from shore to their mooring. The more Watson looked at the bill, the more he realized it was getting too broad for its own good.

“I got feedback via e-mail and phone calls of people saying they keep their life jackets where they belong — right under their seat,” says Watson. “They say ‘I know how to swim.’ ”

Watson says the local waters, on average, tend to be about 50 degrees, even in the inland lakes and rivers.

“I tell people to go out there 100 yards, dump your canoe and try to make it back to shore without getting hypothermia,” says Watson. “I’m from the south and down there you might be able to last a few hours. Here, it’s maybe 30 seconds.”

Watson, who is in his fourth and last 2-year legislative term, says he does not plan to bring the bill back since he will not have time to revise it for the next session.

“I certainly hope some other forward-thinking people can bring this back,” says Watson.

“It is so vitally important.”

Another bill currently on the table would require Maine boaters 18 and younger to take a basic safety course, although that also has drawn its share of criticism.

“Maine is a very conservative place,” says Watson. “People seemed to feel that boat safety is innate and doesn’t have to be learned.”

This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters Section of the June 2009 issue.