Save boaters from themselves: Require life jackets

Hundreds of lives would be saved each year if boaters were required to wear PFDs

May 17, 2011|By L. Alan Keene

Sadly, while we Americans rail against big government's intrusion into our personal lives, our unwillingness to stop certain reckless behaviors often invites governmental involvement. Simply put, sometimes we need to have laws passed to protect us from ourselves. If common sense doesn't do it, then the law must.

The use of cellphones while driving is a perfect example. States across the nation are scrambling to pass laws prohibiting hand-held cellphone use when behind the wheel. While it doesn't take a mental giant to recognize how dangerous talking and texting while driving can be, that recognition hasn't helped. Laws have to be passed.

I'm afraid the boating community, albeit on a much smaller scale, has reached that same point when it comes to the use of personal flotation devices (PFDs) — i.e., life jackets. While indisputable evidence indicates that PFDs save lives, many lives, a recent study shows that fewer than 10 percent of adult boaters wear one.

According to U.S. Coast Guard statistics, in 2009, a total of 543 boaters drowned while "enjoying" America's lakes, rivers and bays. And of that number, the vast majority, 464, were aboard smaller boats (26 feet in length or less).

Conservative estimates indicate that 80 percent of those drowning victims would be alive today had they donned a life jacket before leaving the dock.

With National Safe Boating Week beginning on Saturday, it's as good a time as any to ask the question: Why do intelligent boaters take such risks? Why do the same people who wouldn't let a Jan. 1 pass without replacing the batteries in their smoke detectors or think of leaving the driveway without buckling their seat belt — why would these same people venture out onto a large body of water without wearing some type of flotation device?

Some, I'm sure, don't fully understand the risk. Many boaters assume it could never happen to them. Most think their companions will throw them a line and help them back aboard if they happen to slip. Others convince themselves that, if their life depended on it, they could swim to a distant shore. Still others believe that as long as they show a little extra care, winding up in the water isn't a realistic concern.

And while all of these may be true at times, why would anyone want to take the gamble with so much to lose and so little to gain?

The usual reasons given for not wearing a PFD are comfort issues: They're too hot, too bulky, too uncomfortable. But I suspect that there's another, more powerful, reason that few boaters would be willing to acknowledge. A reason that involves the fragile male ego and how we, as boaters, perceive ourselves wearing a PFD.

The life jacket, for many male boaters, consciously or not, represents weakness and timidity. Its purpose, they may feel, is to protect small children and to make nonswimming adults feel more secure around the water. It's certainly not intended for experienced and confident boaters, like ourselves, except under the most extreme weather or race conditions. To be seen motoring out of the marina on a pleasant summer afternoon wearing a PFD broadcasts to many an insecurity that the male ego simply won't abide.

As irrational as this stigma is, it's imprinted on the psyches of powerboaters and sailboaters alike and won't disappear on its own. A law requiring boaters to wear PFDs when aboard recreational boats shorter than 26 feet would allow common sense to prevail over senseless bias, much as helmet laws have done for bikers. The male ego has been removed from that choice, and motorcyclists, who once avoided wearing a helmet for fear of appearing weak and timid now wouldn't ride without one.

Sadly, legislation to require PFD use for occupants of small boats in the state of Illinois was defeated last year after a coordinated lobbying effort. A similar bill introduced in the Maryland legislature in 2006 met with the same fate.

But hopefully, as we move into a new boating season, state legislators across the country will begin to recognize the need to help protect boaters, like you and me, from ourselves.

It's a shame, but sometimes it takes a law.

L. Alan Keene, a retired mental health professional, is a freelance writer and Chesapeake Bay boater. His email is

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