Coast Guard Push for Mandatory Life Jacket Wear

We are a nation of individual freedoms and the rule of law. Laws and rules generally restrict the citizen’s right to infringe on the rights of others. Sometimes they reflect an agenda that specifies behavior that “ought to be,” in the eyes of the majority, though I personally consider this “dangerous ground.”

There is considerable impetus within the Coast Guard Boating Safety department, particularly and some law enforcement administrative organizations, for a regulation requiring full time life jacket wear on more than 80% of the recreational boating fleet. The effort began for all boats 26 feet and under. Protests from consumer and industry organizations have, at least temporarily, reduced the demand to under 18′. However, it is clear that this is not “the last bite at the apple.”

There are somewhere between 70,000,000 (National Marine Manufacturers Association estimate) and 82,000,000 (Coast Guard estimate) boaters each year. The number of fatalities is relatively static in the 700 area. Of those fatalities, something in the 3-400 range are due to drowning. The Coast Guard, accurately allowing for less than 100% wear rate and those accidents where other factors dominate, estimates that around 70 people are killed that would have survived in the proposed Mandatory Life Jacket world. The phrase “one in a million” is mathematically accurate.

In the automotive field, seat belts were first made optional then made mandatory. The populace was not enthusiastic, but the numbers saved were predicted to be, and turned out to be, huge. However, there is a marked risk contrast between a boat floating in water and car rapidly passing fixed objects on a harsh surface.

We also reduced freeway speeds to 55 MPH from 70 for a while to save fuel. We found a significant saving of lives – far, far more than 70, but we as a nation elected to return to 70 MPH when saving fuel was less critical. 50 MPH was just too much burden on millions of drivers who would rather trust their skill and good judgment to have freedom within a reasonable limitation structure.

Present law (accepted by boaters) demands suitable life jackets be aboard sufficient to outfit every passenger. The passengers and the captain are allowed to make the decision as to when they wear them. Most wear them venturing out at night and in rough or swift water. Non-swimmers are urged to wear them at any significant provocation (I believe that 62% of drownings are non-swimmers). Children wear them (by law for the most part). The boating fraternity has an excellent safety record (700 deaths out of 70-80 million boaters = .00001, give or take a few points beyond the 5th digit. Part of the exercise of our freedoms (and outdoor recreation) involves taking (and minimizing) small calculated risks. Otherwise, we would not ski – on snow or water – or scuba dive, fly airplanes or hike in the wilderness. Certainly we would not ride motorcycles or engage in a host of pursuits we hold dear to enjoying America’s outdoors. I suspect that humans are bored by a risk free life. I know I am.

I grieve for the loved ones of drowning victims, and one of the worst times in my life was assisting in the search for a boy who drowned. Fortunately it happened only once in my 60 plus years of boating. It also was a circumstance that the proposed rule would not help. He fell off a dock without a jacket.

It is the position of the recreational boating industry and most recreational boaters that use of a wear mandate should be reserved for increased risk situations, leaving the boater to exercise his training and knowledge to determine the course in marginal situations. Incidentally, mandatory training has become fairly well accepted in our sport.

The resolution now enacted by the Coast Guard’s National Boating Safety Advisory Council allows pursuit of this mandate. The Council has representatives from various parts of the industry and boating public, but the Coast Guard carefully selects a predominately “stacked deck” as members. Along with four other “unstacked” members, I vigorously opposed and continue to oppose the action. The moderates and opposing members managed to inject a requirement for additional public input. It will be badly needed. The council does not accurately represent the boating public.

About John Underwood

John Underwood currently serves on the National Boating Safety Advisory Council for the US Coast Guard. He is past chairman of the Marine Retailers Association of America. He owned Lockwood Marine for 20 years. For more info, click Contributors on the main menu.

4 thoughts on “Coast Guard Push for Mandatory Life Jacket Wear

  1. It seems that government is more and more intrusive in our lives as of late.
    This country was built on rugged individualism and our government was instituted on that basis; one need only to look at all of the writings of the Founding Fathers to understand why. Oppression from government was the order of the day prior to our Revolution.
    While all that may seem ‘distant’ from the mandatory use of lifejackets aboard a recreational vessel, IT REALLY IS NOT.
    Boaters may need some education to make informed decisions, but not a policy which restricts a bsic tenet of the boating liefstyle — FREEDOM.
    Our industry should send a ‘loud and clear’ message to our governmental policymakers: Information and Education should be available to the boating public; the answer to safe boating does not lie in additional mandates.
    Best, Ed Lofgren Past Chair, MRAA

  2. As a 10 year veteran of the US COast Guard, and a life long member of the Marine Industry, I am 100% AGAINST mandatory life jacket wear. This industry has a wonderful, safe record as far as deaths go. My father always taught me that math doesnt lie. This will destroy the marine industry and we need to speak out to our elected officials. it is time we take a stand.

  3. Cound’nt agree more with Ed and Chad. Having grown up on the water and Circumnavigating at the age of 21 this is “infuriating”. Makes me want to give up my CG license they are just ruining it, guess we still have INTERNATIONAL WATERS lol It seems to me that a revolution is well on the way could be healthy.

  4. since 2009 The Mississippi Corps Lakes have mandatory life jacket wear. They are so Nazi-like that they run Grown men and women out of the water when they wade into water over their knees without a life jacket. I swear, no exaggeration. Wish I was joking, hard to believe. Soldiers have died protecting our freedoms, only to have them slowly whittled away by legislation and regulation ! We must stop this now !

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