Boating Safety: Lifejackets are the New Seatbelts

Your intrepid boating journalist found some news about lifejackets that will likely affect you.

Did you know that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) claims nearly 370 million visits to America’s 4,200 outdoor recreation areas that they manage? With 422 lake and river projects in 43 states among the recreation areas—they are very popular with the boating public.

USACE logo

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will decide about mandatory lifejacket use at the end of 2011.

The Army Corps of Engineers  introduced a daring new policy on mandatory lifejacket usage. The policy is designed to reduce the drowning deaths of nearly 700 people nationwide each year in recreational boating accidents. On USACE managed property alone, 1948 people drowned from 1997 to 2009.

What really prompted the policy was that 91 percent of these drowning victims were not wearing a lifejacket. More importantly it was determined that in the majority of incidents, a life jacket would have kept the victim from drowning.  Implemented in 2009 at the district level and enforced with fines, you can follow progress of the program on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website.

What is newsworthy about the program is that the USACE agreed to review the results and make a final decision for the entire system at the end of the 2011 recreational year—now.lifejacket

Here, in a nutshell, is their lifejacket policy:

Expect the unexpected, wear it!

Lifejackets are mandatory for

  • all occupants on powered vessels under 16 feet.
  • all occupants on non-powered vessels, regardless of size.
  • all occupants on vessels 16 feet to 26 feet while under main propulsion. (Lifejackets are not required while vessel is trolling or standing still).
  • all swimmers in non-designated swimming areas.
  • all occupants of any boat towing a skier as well as the skier being pulled by the tow vessel

The U.S. Coast Guard, which has been observing and measuring lifejacket wear rates since 1998 through a grant funded by the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, doesn’t have such a tight policy on lifejackets. I’d characterize the Coast Guard’s lifejacket policy as mandating they be onboard, but the Coast Guard doesn’t require that you wear them—even though the stats say they probably should.

You see, the Coast Guard has found that most people, given a choice, don’t wear their lifejackets—at a staggering rate of 96.5% . They also found that groups who were mandated to wear a lifejacket (by states, counties or private clubs, for example), such as personal watercraft operators or children, did so at a 78% rate.

The onset of cold weather is another compelling reason to wear a lifejacket. Coast Guard studies show that the survival rates from hypothermia improve dramatically if you wear a lifejacket—the colder the water, the better your chances if you are wearing a lifejacket!

So if Big Brother is going to mandate through the Corps of Engineers that we wear lifejackets, can the USCG be far behind? The government does have several decades’ worth of stats supporting a move to this policy. We’ve gotten used to mandatory seatbelt laws. This pending policy decision by the Corps of Engineers could lead to a similar precedent for our nation’s waterways –mandatory use.


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