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Should Coast Guard end push for mandatory life jacket wear? (Part 1)

Kudos to the Coast Guard for moving with great speed late last week to publish a proposed rulemaking that could lead to new standards for inflatable life jacket wear by individuals under the age of 16 (see all details in last Dealer Outlook, Sept. 29.)

The swift action clearly reflects the view stated by Rear Admiral Kevin Cook, USCG’s director of prevention policy, when he recently announced the record low boating fatalities for 2010. “I am optimistic that the number of deaths and injuries can continue to be reduced further because of the strong commitment to safe boating from our partners in the states, non-government advocacy groups and the boating industry," he said.

Indeed, as boating participation continues to grow and fatalities are the lowest on record, moves like examining standards for inflatable life jackets make real sense. In fact, promoting innovation in life jackets through enhanced wearer comfort, style and increasing technological advances are stated objectives in the USCG’s new five-year strategic plan. Moreover, the strategic plan foresees other programs to increase life jacket wear. For example, provide boat manufacturers with collateral literature on life jackets to be given end users with owner’s manuals and similar materials, and encourage all within the boating safety community (education groups, law enforcement officers, retail dealers, etc.) to regularly demonstrate and educate boaters about the comfort and benefits of inflatable jackets, among others.

In essence, the boating industry and the USCG are on the same page when it comes to the desire for increased life jacket wear and encouraging technological developments and standards improvements. The industry also supports mandatory wear for children, PWC operators and in specific high risk situations, for example, cold water boating in small open vessels where hypothermia can quickly set in.

But the industry stands strongly opposed to the USCG’s desire to mandate national wear regulations, a divisive issue that’s been around since the USCG first asked its National Boating Safety Advisory Council back in 2004 to recommend mandatory wear for people in boats less than 21 feet. NBSAC said no and continued to say no until last spring.

In April, NBSAC, considered by some to be a “stacked” 21-member panel, voted 16-5 to recommend the USCG: (1) Initiate a process leading to mandatory life jacket regulations for all aboard boats less than 18 feet, all canoes, kayaks, row boats, PWCs and persons towed for watersports; (2) Gauge public sentiment regarding such mandatory requirements; (3) Streamline life jacket testing and approvals to make improved and less costly jackets available to boaters faster; and (4) Give proper consideration to approval of alternative life jackets and buoyant devices like Level 50 devices approved in Europe.

Notably, NBSAC’s vote does not, at this point, make any mandatory regulations eminent. But it surely gives those within the USCG bent on getting mandatory regulations a green light to spend valuable resources pushing this issue when, in fact, they should really be dropping it altogether.
Why do I say that? First, the USCG has many good ideas to promote increased life jacket wear and they should be doing them. Mandatory wear isn’t one, however. Heightened education initiatives in the USCG’s five-year strategic plan, in partnership with educational, state, safety and industry groups is the right place to put limited resources these days.

Second, there are compelling arguments that any national mandate of this kind will be a ticket to chaos on the nation’s waterways. You need to view those arguments and I plan to spell them out here in Thursday’s (Oct. 6) Dealer Outlook . . . so you can make up your own mind.


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