Requiring life jackets is misguided

May 18, 2011

L. Alan Keene's op-ed ("Save boaters from themselves: require life jackets," May 15) argues incorrectly that boaters must be "saved from themselves" through the enactment of mandatory life jacket laws when in fact the opposite is true — we must arm boaters with the knowledge to make the right decisions on their own.

Boating remains a fun and safe family activity for people of all ages. Boaters, especially those in the Chesapeake Bay area who have long legacies of enjoying local waters, take safety very seriously. We are a community of people who are acutely aware of the power and unpredictability of the water, which is why most are extremely diligent about the safety of our loved ones on board each time we leave shore. And while any sport carries some degree of risk, boating is one of the safest, reporting a fatality rate of less than one-thousandth of one percent of the 70 million boaters that took to the water last year. Life jacket manufacturers understand this, too. The bulky, unattractive life jackets of days past are making room for more innovative designs that are increasingly comfortable and accessible, broadening a boater's choice when it comes to what type of life jacket to wear while cruising, fishing or enjoying water sports.

State laws mandating life jacket wear will create inconsistent rules, lead to public confusion and create a bureaucratic hassle for agencies trying to determine who will enforce these regulations. Even aside from these practical considerations, creating a law, declaring the problem fixed and walking away is the ultimate act of naiveté. The reality is that the boating community has always embraced safety education, which remains the best tool in combating injuries and fatalities on the water. The majority of boating accidents are caused not by lack of life jacket wear, but operator factors such as inattention, inexperience, excessive speed, alcohol, failure to obey the rules of the water and failure to assess weather risks. We should do what we can to enhance and expand education programs, which give captains and their passengers the information they need in order to make informed decisions not only about where and when they should be wearing a life jacket, but on safe boating practices overall.

Mr. Keene also overstates the actual ability of a state law to decrease boating-related accidents. With different municipalities and agencies governing local waters, who will be responsible for monitoring boaters each time one of Maryland's nearly 200,000 boats enters a waterway? How effective is any regulation when boaters can easily remove their life jacket once out of sight from an enforcement officer? As budgets for our aquatic resources continue to remain tight, should we divert precious resources away from efforts to restore and maintain the Bay and the more than 150 waterways that feed into it in order to hire droves of enforcement staff?

If Mr. Keene feels that guests on his boat should be wearing a life jacket, it is his duty and right as the vessel's captain to require his passengers to wear one. However, requiring by law that each boater wear a life jacket is a misguided panacea when the real answer is to continue to educating both new and veteran boaters on proper life jacket use and overall boating safety. In boating as in many things in life, a law can never be a replacement for sound judgment.

Thomas J. Dammrich, Chicago

The writer is president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

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