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

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As anticipated, the National Recreational Boating Safety Coalition met yesterday and Army Corp of Engineers spokesperson Lynda Nutt presented results from their three-year, on-going test program regarding mandatory life jacket wearing. Moreover, she indicated the Corps is so pleased with their success that expansion for 2011 is a done deal. 

The positive results announced by the Corps seem pretty amazing -- life jacket wear skyrocketing from 6 percent to 70 percent! It raises interesting questions – like how’d they do it, and so quickly, too?

The Corps credits an extensive public relations outreach to the affected local communities and enforcement that did not issue any citations or fines. Boaters or swimmers not wearing jackets were stopped and told to put them on. Those who refused were told to leave the lake! How many “stops” were made? The Corps isn’t reporting. How many boaters were told to leave the lake, and did so? Not reporting that, either. Did boaters keep the jackets on once out of sight? No one knows. Moreover, when the Corps announced the test to the communities, it stated: “The policy will require the use of life jackets to a greater degree than existing regulations in an effort to save lives.” To date, the Corps is not providing any comparison data on fatalities on those lakes, although claims have been made the new requirements saved two lives.

Moreover, the Corps claims there was no reduction in the use of these lakes by boaters - in fact it went up 6 percent. Of course, that flies in the face of most surveys in which boaters clearly indicate mandatory adult wear is unacceptable, with specific exceptions like PWCs, skiing, canoes, etc. And, while these reported results are admirable, it’s hard to believe boaters will keep coming back if they ever have to appear before a magistrate for a federal offense and fine. That’s likely where this will lead since it is known PR campaigns can’t be effectively sustained over time.

But what’s really notable here is why the boating industry remains generally opposed (except for children and PWCs) to mandatory adult wear . . . namely, great confusion on the waterways and a deterrent to boating. For example, MRAA strongly encourages voluntary wear for all over 12 years old. “Mandatory wear on boats up to 26 feet is a terribly unnecessary deterrent to boating enjoyment and sales,” says MRAA president Phil Keeter.

We agree, says Cindy L. Squires, NMMA’s chief counsel of public affairs and director of regulatory affairs. “We strongly support education, and a key component of that, for example, is informing boaters of the more comfortable inflatable products available,” she said. “And, we have not opposed enacting narrow wear mandates for specific high risk situations like cold water boating in small open vessels where conditions provide an extremely short amount of time before hyperthermia can set in."

In truth, the real negative in all this is that boating safety is convoluted at best and it appears to be getting worse. On the federal level, multiple agencies from land management to park services all control some waterways and virtually all can make up their own rules without process. Add to that state agencies and laws that also oversee waterways usage. Then, there are thousands of local units of government that . . . well, you get it. Lack of uniformity reigns supreme!

A case in point: Ohio is considered by many to be a model boating program. Berlin Reservoir is Ohio’s fifth largest inland lake and is a Corps lake in the Pittsburgh district. A dozen year ago, the district unilaterally mandated adult life jacket wear on Berlin. But, Ohio, a state rich in waterways, does not mandate adult wear (children under 10 and other exceptions.) According to Ohio Division of Watercraft Chief Pam Dillon, Ohio watercraft officers do not enforce federal law. “There has been no enforcement of the Corps of Engineers life jacket policy on Berlin by Ohio Watercraft Officers,” she says. “We vigorously encourage wear through our education programs, especially the new inflatable devices. But we also see a push back from boaters on the cost and maintenance of these jackets. Because there’s no “one size fits all” replacement cartridge for inflatables, boaters are confused and resistant to try these new, more comfortable devices. There is no question more convenient and affordable options need to hit the market before boaters will accept the premise of mandatory wear." Interestingly, it has been reported that Pittsburgh may increase mandatory wear on Berlin from the current less than 16 feet to boats up to 26 feet, reflecting Vicksburg.

While additional “tests” have reportedly been considered in Iowa and South Dakota, one is definitely set for Pine Flat Lake near Fresno, Calif., starting April 1, 2011 for one season. This one is the most aggressive ever attempted: All boaters on all boats, regardless of size, will be mandated to wear life jackets while underway. Same for all swimmers beyond 100 feet of shore! Pine Flat Lake reportedly has a large number of boats and houseboats over 26 feet. The Corps wants to see if the boaters will accept it or push back both directly and/or through their Congressional delegates.

What the Corps ultimately sets into its national policy is sure to influence other agencies on many levels. And, while the boating industry can do its part for reasonable boating regulations, in cases like those outlined here, ultimately, the boaters who must make clear what limits and mandates they find acceptable. There must be a line between government mandates and reasonable choice. Right now, I’m squinting pretty hard to see it!