Mandatory life jackets can save lives --but only when worn, police point out

July 21, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Anne Arundel Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- On a sultry afternoon in the Magothy River, a pair of Natural Resources Police officers spot-check a handful of recreational boaters for safety violations, with predictable results.

As the officers pull along each vessel they ask, among other things, to see the boat's mandatory life jackets.

Not surprisingly, the owners all eventually produce the bright orange vests, but only after retrieving them from some crowded cubbyhole below deck.

No one on board any of the boats is wearing a life jacket, though the wind has kicked up white-peaked waves in the Chesapeake Bay.

One fisherman pulls out a child-size vest initially.

Most of the boaters admit they have never worn a life jacket.

"Most people have them; very few wear them," said Natural Resources Police Lt. W. David Street. "It's always been that way."

So far this year, the consequences of that simple fact have been deadly.

As of mid-July, 30 people have drowned in Maryland waterways, compared with 17 at this point last year -- a 76 percent increase.

Most of those drownings have involved boats.

In only one of the incidents was the victim wearing a life jacket or, as they are most properly called, a personal flotation device or PFD.

About two weeks ago, a 4-year-old boy fell over the side of a boat in the Eastern Shore's Chester River.

The boat had been anchored amid dozens of others around Chestertown's waterfront in anticipation of the town's annual July Fourth fireworks display.

Though family members immediately plunged into the water to save him and police later mobilized an impressive rescue effort, the boy's body was not discovered until the next morning.

That drowning, more than any other this year, touched off concern about the effectiveness of Maryland's boating safety laws, which treat children the same as adults and non-swimmers the same as swimmers.

Current law reflects the U.S. Coast Guard minimum requirement: Boats must be outfitted with a life jacket for each occupant, but they need not be worn.

"The fact we've had more drownings has stimulated us to take another look at the problem," said Bess Crandall, planning and policy director for the Department of Natural Resources' Boating Administration.

"Children can't make this decision for themselves," Ms. Crandalsaid.

Under current state law, life jackets must be worn by water-skiers and operators of personal watercraft such as jet skis.

They are also required in Western Maryland's white water rivers and, since last year, in the Potomac River above Washington during the colder months.

In contrast, Texas, Utah, Arizona, Louisiana, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania require children to wear life jackets, although the age limits and circumstances (typically, the type of boat) vary in each, according to the Coast Guard.

Ohio, for instance, requires children under age 10 to wear a life jacket on board boats less than 18 feet in length.

The law has been in effect since 1976, and state officials claim it has saved lives.

"It seems weird that more states don't require them," said Paul Gregory, chief of the watercraft division within the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in Columbus. "It's been very effective. We've had few fatalities with youngsters."

Maryland officials say one reason they have never pursued a similar law is that children rarely drown in boating accidents.

Before the July 4 drowning in Chestertown, only one person under the age of 15 had been killed in a boating accident during the previous three years.

However, a review of Maryland marine police boating-accident records for 1988 through 1990 indicates that in the majority of deaths, life jackets were on board the vessel but not worn.

Of the 65 people who were killed in boat accidents those three years, only six wores life jackets.

"Boating is one of the last fun, uncontrolled recreational things left in the United States," said marine police Sgt. Louis W. Ritter, a boating safety expert. "No one wants to wear one on a hot day.

"But I tell you one thing: I've never seen someone thrown into the water and then be able to slip one on."

In recent years, Maryland and most other states have been updating their boating laws to reflect increased concern over the use of alcohol and drugs, and over inexperienced boaters.

Maryland is considered one of the more progressive states in this regard: Since 1988, anyone born after July 1, 1972, must attend an eight-hour boating-safety course before operating a boat.

Instead of mandating life jackets, the state has tried to encourage their use. Marine police officers regularly visit classrooms to preach the benefits of wearing a life jacket, and public service announcements with that message are distributed radio and television stations.

"We know that PFDs save lives, but there's no sense in writing a law that nobody is going to follow," said Ms. Crandall. "Gracious sakes, we boat to have fun. We boat to be cool."

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