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Is mandatory PFD wear on the horizon?

Is mandatory PFD wear on the horizon?

The speed with which one can be thrown from or fall out of a small, open boat takes scores of people by surprise each year. One minute they’re in the boat; the next they’re in the water, often without a life jacket.

“On smaller boats, you just don’t have any warning,” says Capt. Scott Evans, chief of the Office of Boating Safety at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C. “That’s the problem in a nutshell.”

The Coast Guard considers the current PFD “wear rate” a significant problem. Less than 5 percent of adults on small boats wear PFDs, compared with about 97 percent of PWC riders (who are required to wear a life jacket) and about 82 percent of kayakers, according to Coast Guard figures.

“The goal is to save lives, and to do that you have to get people to wear PFDs,” Evans says.

The National Transportation Safety Board will hold an important public forum next month to discuss whether adult boaters should be required to wear life jackets. Children in every state now are required to wear a PFD, but there currently are no rules mandating when adults must put on a life jacket.

The purpose of the forum is to gather information and promote an “open and informative discussion” on mandatory PFD wear, according to the board.

The statistics on PFDs and drowning are sobering. In 2002, 750 people died in boating accidents. Of those, 524 — or 70 percent — drowned, according to the Coast Guard. And almost 85 percent of the drowning victims weren’t wearing a life jacket. The deaths included 28 children age 12 and under, and about 40 percent of the young victims weren’t wearing a PFD.

The Coast Guard estimates that about 442 lives could have been saved in 2002 if boaters had worn their life jackets. The agency is currently working with a variety of boating groups to develop “non-regulatory” strategies for increasing the wear rate among those recreational boaters considered most at risk.

Evans told me the Coast Guard wants to see if it can reduce drownings through education and awareness before resorting to rule-making. We agree with this approach. What we need are solutions, not knee-jerk legislation that would put every adult in a PFD, regardless of the size of their boat.

If it turns out rules are needed, Evans believes the focus should be on those areas where most of the drownings occur. The statistics point to open boats less than 21 feet, which tend to have lower freeboard and less stability than larger boats. (There also are many more of them.) The Coast Guard believes that in 2002 as many as 85 percent of the drownings involved boats smaller than 21 feet, according to Evans.

A case could be made that today’s small boats are stronger, lighter and, in many respects, safer than previous generations of small craft. At the same time, however, they are considerably faster, which we suspect is offsetting some of the other gains.

Anglers and hunters who pursue their sport from small powerboats are two groups at the greatest risk, says Evans, who sails a Pearson 27. They also are two of the most difficult to reach in terms of education.

Why?

“They don’t consider themselves boaters,” Evans says. “The boat is just a vehicle for them to get to their sport. And they’re often off by themselves, so if they get into trouble, there’s no one there to help.”

A life jacket in many respects is the last resort. Evans is hopeful that education will decrease the number of incidents in which people wind up in the water. Consider this: Roughly 80 percent of the operators involved in accidents have never taken a boating safety course.

The Aug. 25 NTSB forum will bring the important players in the safety arena around the table and continue to focus attention on this problem. There is no doubt that the specter of mandatory PFD wear has gotten people’s attention. That’s a good thing.

Let the NTSB know how you feel about mandatory life jacket rules. For more on the forum, including information on how to submit papers, visit www.ntsb.gov.

For the record, Evans wears a suspenders-style inflatable PFD, his wife a belt pack inflatable, his son, who is almost 15, a ski vest-style life jacket — even the family dog wears flotation. On two occasions while docking, Evans’ Shih Tzu has jumped from the boat to the dock and missed, saved each time by a trusty doggy PFD.