PART I - Mandatory life jacket wear becoming more of an issue

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Tomorrow (Dec. 15) could be an interesting day if the subject of mandatory life jacket wear on pleasure boats is on your mind. That’s because a meeting of the National Recreational Boating Safety Coalition is slated to feature a report from the Army Corps of Engineers on its mandatory life jacket program. Never heard of it? I hadn’t, either, until recently.

Yes, there’s been lots of dialogue in recent years about mandating wear. Most states have passed some laws on the subject. For example, all but two states require PWC operators to wear one. It’s almost universal that water skiers and children wear them, albeit in the latter case the age requirement and size of boat vary. Generally, however, adults are not mandated to wear life jackets. When and where the issue has been proposed, boaters have usually pushed back loudly.

Until, that is, the Army Corps of Engineers unilaterally elected to implement a new rule on Corps-operated lakes in certain districts - most recently, the Vicksburg Districts. Reportedly a desire of General Don T. Riley (as director of civil works) to have such a policy on all 170-plus Corps lakes across the country, it was decided to avoid an anticipated nationwide boater backlash and start with a 3-year “test program” on four Corps lakes in the Vicksburg District.

The test began in May, 2009, on Arkabutla Lake, Sardis Lake, Enid Lake, and Grenada Lake. The results, thus far, will be reported at the NRBSC meeting. According to the Corps, national data indicated fatalities most often occurred in accidents involving small boats (under 26 feet) and swimmers outside designated swim areas. Based on that, the Corps issued the following mandates on the four test lakes: -- ALL persons must wear a Type I, II, III or V Coast Guard-approved life jacket on powered vessels 26 feet and under whenever under its main power (not including trolling motors). -- ALL persons must wear a Type I, II, III or V Coast Guard-approved life jacket at all times while swimming outside of designated swim areas. -- ALL persons must wear a Type I, II, III or V Coast Guard-approved life jacket while skiing or being pulled by a vessel. -- ALL persons must wear a Type I, II, III or V Coast Guard-approved life jacket on non-powered vessels regardless of length including, but not limited to, canoes, kayaks, flat bottoms, jon boats, sailboats and paddle boats.

Radical? You bet, particularly with regard to boat lengths and swimming areas. So, what’s been the boaters’ reaction? The Corps initially feared a loss of recreation, but now reports it has actually increased. Even more surprising, a Coast Guard-funded study concluded while life jacket wears averaged 10-11 percent before, it jumped to an unprecedented 70 percent on the test lakes!

How did the Corps do it? Enforcement and citations? Will the Corps now add more districts and where? What are the broader implications for boaters on and off Corps lakes? What impact could it have on state boating programs? And, most important, where do we in the boating industry stand regarding mandated life jacket wear? Perhaps the NRBSC meeting will tell us more.

FYI – the NRBSC is a small group of boating representatives from government agencies and boating organizations with D.C. offices, including: MRAA, NMMA, NTSB, BOAT/US, NBF, USCG and its Auxiliary. Aside from the meeting, I’ll give you the answer to the above questions in Part II this Thursday (Dec. 16) here in Dealer Outlook.

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