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The National Association of Boating Law Administrators is meeting this week. Among the actions planned, delegates are being asked to vote on a proposal to drop “PFD” and return to the use of “life jacket” as the designation for … well, PFDs! Overwhelming approval is anticipated.

We can all remember what they were originally called? How about life preservers, life vests or life jackets? Somewhere around 20 years ago the term “personal floatation device” was coined. It’s not clear whether the industry or the Coast Guard was the prime mover behind identifying life jackets as PFDs. Regardless, the consensus thinking was that “life jacket” had an ominous connotation. After all, the characters in the mega-movie “Titanic” had just spent nearly half of the three-plus-hour epic wearing life vests without any happy ending! So it was easy to garner support for the change to PFD, because it seemed less threatening and less negative. In addition, PFD might be more accepted by the boating public and result in increased use.

But throughout it all, PFD has never been totally embraced by all interests. For example, the National Boating Safety Advisory Council has been taking a pass on “PFD” and has used life jacket for some years, even over the protests of the Coast Guard. “I’m glad the Coast Guard is going back to ‘life jacket,’ ” says Larry Innis, who previously served on the NBSAC board and chaired the organization’s safety campaign that used “life jacket” over “PFD,” believing the message was stronger and more direct.

Arguably, the return to “life jacket” may focus more attention on the life-saving device and its critical function. After all, it is intended to keep people above water and, thereby, save lives. So perhaps it should be called what it is, and that’s the primary motive behind the move to dump “PFD” ? call attention to its purpose.

But it’s not likely to increase life jacket wear. Indeed, it may do just the opposite. Saying “put on your life jacket” to guests, for example, just doesn’t send a picture of a pleasant leisure day on the water. It’s doubtful most skippers will do so.

Accordingly, now that “life jacket” is back "in" and “PFD” is "out" for promotion per the Coast Guard, it appears we’re about to enter a new era of mixed messages regarding boating safety devices like PFDs … or life jackets. If you’re scratching your head over the real need for such a change now, you’re not alone.

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