Personal flotation devices — or life jackets — have been mandatory boating wear for children and personal watercraft riders for quite a few years. And every boat owner is required to carry them aboard for all passengers, whether the PFDs get worn or not.
Every few years, there are calls to go beyond the basic safety requirements and make wearing life jackets mandatory for all boaters in all situations, regardless of their cruising waters, age or experience level. However, boating is a form of recreation that celebrates rugged individualism, self-sufficiency and freedom — and many boaters do not take kindly to being told what they can or cannot do aboard their own boats, on their own pleasure cruises.
One of the latest “experiments” in mandatory life jacket wear was undertaken over the last five years, in selected waterways controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers in various states — including California.
The Corps wanted to find out whether requiring boaters at lakes under its control to wear life jackets would result in measurable improvements in safety — and to see how boaters would react to the requirements. So, they instituted a temporary policy in which all boaters were checked out and required to wear PFDs.
Reportedly, results of this experiment were mixed — and boaters in California voiced plenty of opposition to the mandatory life jacket rules. The Corps ultimately decided not to require life jacket use for all boaters on its waterways nationwide, but instead left each individual Corps district commander to make his or her own decision on PFDs.
The Coast Guard may eventually require all occupants of boats smaller than 18 feet to wear life jackets, if an ongoing study by the Office of Boating Safety determines it would improve overall boating safety. Many safe boating experts advocate such a policy — and a handful even seek a blanket requirement for universal boater life jacket wear — such as the blanket requirement that all passengers in automobiles must wear seat belts.
However, mandating life jacket wear for all boaters in all conditions just doesn’t seem to make much sense. Imagine the stupidity of a requirement that passengers aboard a 100-foot motoryacht wear Mae Wests while they’re tucked into the king-size berth in the master stateroom for a night at the dock.
Life jackets save lives, and they are essential pieces of boating gear that all boaters should wear when conditions warrant or should keep within easy reach, ready to use. But they do not necessarily need to be worn at all times by all boaters in all boats.