Army Corps says no to nationwide life-jacket policy

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Kudos to the Army Corps of Engineers for wrapping up a three-year study of mandated life jacket wear on several lakes and determining it will not establish a nationwide policy dictating such a requirement.

More specifically, in a policy memorandum, Major General Michael Walsh, Deputy Commanding Officer for Civil and Emergency Operations, has requested that Corps District Commanders consider selectively expanding a life jacket wear policy at targeted locations within their divisions. However, there will be no systemwide mandate.

From May 2007 through October 2011, the Corps conducted a life jacket study in which various mandatory life-jacket wear policies were established and tested on selected lakes. Specifically, these were in Corps districts in Mississippi, California and Pennsylvania/Ohio. The goal was to determine if mandatory wear policies would save lives, as well as gauging the all-important impact and acceptance of such policies by the boaters using Corps lakes. The reaction was clearly mixed, with the greatest degree of apparent acceptance on the Vicksburg District’s test lakes. On the other hand, there was very significant pushback in California and overall little enforcement and impact in the Pittsburgh District.

In essence, the Corps is opting to leave future decisions to the local commanders. That said, the Corps still has its strategic campaign plan in effect that calls for a 50 percent reduction in water fatalities at Corps-operated lakes by fiscal-year 2014. Educational programs will continue to be a mainstay in their plans.

The latest Corps action is certainly pleasing to the marine industry, which is generally opposed to mandatory wear with certain exceptions such as children and PWC operators. Indeed, the industry has voiced strong support for boating safety educational programs that have resulted in the steady decline of boating-related fatalities to a current record low, while boating participation has continued to grow.

While the Corp’s decision settles that deliberation, at least for the moment, there is still an ongoing debate about mandatory wear in Coast Guard circles. Late last year, its Boating Safety Advisory Council, in a split vote, approved the examination by the Coast Guard’s Office of Boating Safety of the boating public’s response to a proposal that all occupants of vessels 18 feet and under be mandated to wear a life jacket.

If surveys done by organizations such as BoatUS are any indication, it’s already anticipated that the Coast Guard study will bring overwhelming opposition by the boating public to general mandated wear.

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