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Should Coast Guard have scuttled life jacket rule?

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In March, the Coast Guard published a rule that could improve the development of inflatable life jackets and lead to new international standards. Last week, the Coast Guard abruptly withdrew the rule because it got a letter – one letter - opposing it.

If you’re thinking that’s not typical for the Coast Guard, you’re right. But it really highlights the fiasco the whole subject of life jackets has become, especially in light of the Coast Guard’s desire for a national mandate to wear life jackets. Just as the Coast Guard pulled the plug on a good proposal regarding inflatables, perhaps it should also do the same for the very unpopular idea of mandatory wear.

In withdrawing the rule on inflatable life jackets, the Coast Guard sank what was intended to lead to new standards for possible wear by boaters younger than 16 years old (currently prohibited.) In March, the Coast Guard put into the Federal Register: “Although the Coast Guard is not yet ready to revisit the issue of inflatables (personal flotation devices) for children, the industry has begun … to explore the appropriateness of these devices for children and create an appropriate standard." To support development of new international standards for children under 16, the Coast Guard needed to eliminate the words “approved for use by adults only” from the current regulations.

That’s what drew fire from Susan Balistreri, of Balistreri Consulting Inc., reportedly a consultant for life jacket design. She claimed the proposed rule was a move to allow teenagers to use inflatables designed for adults. She claims younger boaters don’t have the capacity to use inflatables properly, a position that is likely rejected by many others in boating safety as well as the boating public. But, it seems clear she also knew that her one objection would likely cause the Coast Guard to start over by having to go through the full rulemaking requirements, including public comments, etc.

The Coast Guard should initiate the necessary rulemaking without delay. In fact, it should have stood its ground in the first place. After all, it proposed the rule knowing full well that life jackets would still have to meet all existing standards including those that limit the use of inflatables to teens 16 and up. Moreover, it’s a paradox that the Coast Guard is pushing for mandatory wear - in spite of surveys like those of BoatUS that reveal boaters overwhelmingly oppose a mandatory rule - but doesn’t dig heels in for a much-needed rule change leading to new standards that could result in increased life jacket wear.

Perhaps it’s also a good time to revisit and update the mandatory wear issue, including the Army Corps of Engineers’ mandated wear program on California’s Pine Flat Lake and the actions of the Boating Safety Advisory Council. We’ll do it all in next Tuesday’s Dealer Outlook.

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