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Mandatory PFD idea still afloat

The National Boating Safety Advisory Council wants to double life jacket use ‘by all possible means’

The message was simple: Wear your life jacket.

But the policy considerations brought before the National Transportation Safety Board in a forum on how to bring that message home to boaters was anything but simple.

The facts are undisputed: In 2003, 481 of 703 boating fatalities in the United States were drownings, and 416 of those drowning victims — 86 percent — weren’t wearing a PFD. Coast Guard studies show that a little more than 22 percent of boaters overall wear their PFDs on the boat. The wear rate for adults on speedboats and runabouts averages a scant 3.9 to 5.5 percent. These figures have changed little over six years despite a massive public education effort.

The Coast Guard studies conclude that the two best ways to save lives is to get more boaters to wear life jackets so there are fewer drownings, and improve boater proficiency so there’s less operator error.

“The wearing of PFDs by all recreational vessel occupants was clearly determined to be the most effective resolution for reducing recreational boating fatalities,” Capt. Scott Evans, Coast Guard chief of boating safety, told the Aug. 25 forum at NTSB Academy in Ashburn, Va.

Evans says the Coast Guard is seeking guidance from the National Boating Safety Advisory Council — the group chiefly responsible for advising the agency on boating safety matters — in how to proceed in improving wear rates. The advisory council has set a goal of doubling the PFD wear rate to 44 percent by 2007, which it believes could save 200 lives a year. BSAC chairman James Muldoon told the forum the council was committed to meeting that goal “by all possible means, including considering the question of mandatory PFD wear.”

Mandatory PFD wear — enacting a law requiring boaters across the board to wear life jackets — was the flash point of the forum.

NBSAC has recommended that state boating law administrators write a model law that states could adopt requiring PFD wear on pleasure boats 21 feet and smaller. The law would apply to small boats only because, out of the 416 drowning victims who didn’t wear a PFD in 2003, 294 were on boats smaller than 21 feet.

William Griswold, chairman of the National Safe Boating Council, came out strongly in favor of such legislation. “Putting a jacket on everyone in that category would be the single most effective way to reduce those deaths,” he said in a paper delivered at the forum. “I believe that mandatory PFD wear can be the most singular measure we can enact to save lives on the water.” Barbara Byers, chair of the Canadian Safe Boating Council, which presented its own exhaustive study of PFD wear to the forum, came out strongly in favor of mandatory PFD wear in Canada, where drownings are nearly double those in the United States because of the cold-water environment. However, Byers’ study notes, “The climate is not quite ready for adoption of such legislation,” and recommends working toward adopting a mandatory wear law.

Industry and boater groups voiced strong opposition to a broad federal rule requiring boaters to wear life jackets. BoatU.S. president Jim Ellis says a 1998 study found that 91 percent of BoatU.S. members oppose a broad federal mandate for PFD wear, but they are open to mandatory PFD laws for the boaters most at risk.

“A majority of those BoatU.S. members surveyed in 1998 did not object to life jacket requirements for children, canoeists, kayakers, personal watercraft operators, water skiers and operations in bad weather,” Ellis says. “Thirty-four percent of those surveyed said they did not object to a requirement for those operating open boats under 16 feet, mainly because statistics show that 50 percent of all recreational boating fatalities occur in boats less than 16 feet.”

A recent survey of 10,000 boaters by Michigan State University’s Recreational Marine Research Center shows that boaters’ attitudes toward mandatory wear haven’t changed much in six years. The July 2004 survey found that 86 percent of boaters still oppose mandatory wear for all boaters, and a third of the boaters surveyed said a mandatory wear rule would influence them to boat less.

BoatU.S. says it doubted a mandatory wear rule for all boaters could be enforced and that it would be widely flouted. With enough evidence to warrant legislation, BoatU.S. could support state laws mandating PFD wear for boaters most at risk based on the size of their boats, the kind of waters they boat in, and the age of the boater, Ellis says, adding that BoatU.S. still believes education is the key to reducing drownings.

The National Marine Manufacturers Association opposes any state or federal effort to extend mandatory PFD-wear laws for adults beyond PWC. “NMMA is concerned that a mandatory PFD requirement would divert attention away from the fundamental issue, which is the need for all boaters to be educated on proper boating safety prior to going out on the water,” says Monita Fontaine, NMMA’s Washington, D.C., lobbyist.

In a confidential survey of state boating law administrators earlier this year, 20 of 34 of the marine police chiefs preferred some alternative to mandating PFDs for those on all boats smaller than 21 feet. However, 33 supported mandatory wear while water skiing, 20 supported it offshore, 27 favored it in coldwater environments, and 23 supported mandatory wear on swift-moving rivers.

“There is no consensus among boating law administrators regarding universal mandatory PFD wear for recreational boaters,” says Fred Messman, president of the boating law administrators’ organization. But there did seem to be broad consensus that the PFD industry must keep working to provide betterlooking, more wearable, higher-tech PFDs — at an affordable cost — so that boaters stop buying the cheap, bulky Type II life jackets that they throw into a locker and never wear because they’re ugly and uncomfortable.

NTSB hopes to use the data collected at the forum to help it evaluate the boater-safety benefits of mandatory wear laws.