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Should Coast Guard end push for mandatory life jacket wear? (Part 2)

The recent vote by the National Boating Safety Advisory Council to have the Coast Guard initiate a process leading to mandatory life jacket wear is a textbook case for: “Bring up the same thing over and over and you’ll eventually drive the answer you want!” (See last Tuesday’s Oct. 4 Dealer Outlook for background).

Ever since 2004, the USCG has been trying to get its NBSAC to come out in favor of a national mandatory life jacket wear requirement. It finally happened in April when NBSAC went over the edge by ignoring compelling arguments that such national regulations will likely be impractical to implement and are guaranteed to draw heavy fire from the nation’s boaters and marine industry. Moreover, in light of the current all-time record low boating fatalities, it’s reasonable to question the need to even consider such an unpopular policy.

One only needs to read the minutes of NBSAC meetings to glaringly see every one of the 21 NBSAC members knows the nation’s boaters won’t support this and are expected to push back against any such rulemaking. For example, a recent survey of BoatUS members found a whopping 90 percent of respondents opposed to such measures. It seems safe, then, to say NBSAC is not representative of the nation’s boaters. But there’s a great deal more.

The USCG originally claimed mandatory life jacket wear could save 300 or more lives annually. However, a work group chaired by NBSAC-member Richard Moore, a study model created by Dr. Dan Maxim of the USCG Auxiliary, and other considerations, eventually concluded that the number was more likely to be 70. The probability that drownings will be reduced is difficult to estimate empirically, Dr. Maxim reported. Further, Moore noted the data revealed the best way to prevent drowning deaths is to keep people in the relatively safe confines of an upright boat. He noted that education is an important component here. He warned that while wearing a lifejacket might reduce the chance of drowning, there were no guarantees.

One thing is guaranteed – if there is a national wear mandate, it will be confusion and chaos in the states that already have laws and regulations that can be cited as the major contributors to the record low boating fatalities picture. For example, more than 90 percent of states would require a legislative action to implement a national mandate recommended by NBSAC. Further, Moore acknowledged that even if a mandatory regulations were passed, there was no assurance of “Vicksburg type” enforcement and education action by all the interested parties. Clearly, change would not take place without enforcement by state and local officers.

Moore’s reference was to the Corps of Engineers test project of mandating life jacket wear on lakes in their Vicksburg and Pittsburgh Districts. It’s produced a mixed bag, at best. The USACE claims success in Vicksburg, albeit short on providing clear evidence. But it’s widely known as a complete failure in Pittsburg. There on Berlin Lake, mostly located in Ohio, the Ohio Division of Watercraft has refused to enforce the mandatory regulations. Ohio, like so many other states, has effective laws and regulations on the books covering children, PWCs, hand-powered vessels, hunters, etc. In fact, the NBSAC members were informed by Susan Balistreri, a consultant on life jacket design, that 56 U.S. states and territories already have laws on the books requiring PWC operators, riders and those being towed to wear life jackets; Forty states mandate life jackets on children under 13, 12 and under or under 12; Six states draw the line at 10 and under, under 10 or under 8; and four states specify age points at under 7 or under 6. Revising all these state laws would be like trying to sell cell phones to scuba divers. Moreover, lest one assumes a national mandate wouldn’t impact state waters, NBSAC estimates such regulations would cover about 80 percent of the nation’s waterways.

The USACE is also conducting a test program on Pine Flat Lake near Fresno, Calif. The one -season test will end October 31. It mandates everyone on all size vessels must wear life jackets, although the USACE is not enforcing it against people on houseboats. The local sheriff marine patrol is not enforcing the mandate at all, according to Pine Flat Lake Marina operator Keith Brockman. Still, he reports boaters have clearly reacted negatively by ignoring the mandate or simply avoiding Pine Flat altogether. That’s reflected in Brockman’s reduced gas sales and loss of slip rentals. And, it’s further confirmed by Donnie Lacefield at Lacefield-Bohner Marine in Madera: “Our customers say they’re avoiding the hassle by simply not going to Pine Flat Lake.”

Finally, NBSAC’s recommendation to set vessel length at 18 feet is the proverbial slippery slope. Former council member John Underwood was spot on when he said NBSAC should drop the idea of setting the length at 26 feet or 21 feet, lengths bound to draw great resistance from boaters. Staunchly opposed to any national mandate, Underwood correctly predicted that if the vessel length were initially set at 18 feet, the USCG could come back later and increase it!

Overall, the USCG is attempting to set a very unpopular course, as is the USACE whose test programs end soon and should never be brought back. But perhaps Cindy Squires, NMMA’s director of regulatory affairs, captured things best when she told the April NBSAC meeting that the boating industry has a long history of supporting safety and believes in mandatory education as the very best course. She further emphasized that during NBSAC’s search for justification of a national mandate, “you have only been talking to yourselves. No one has asked the boating public for input, there’s been no public debate,” she said.

Present law requires approved life jackets for everyone on board. Boaters agree with that. But it is the boaters who should rightfully make the decision as to when and under what local conditions they should wear them. In the end, shouldn’t this be left to making an educated personal choice on the scene?

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