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Life Vest Use May Be Mandatory

May 29, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In what would be a sea change for the boating public, the U.S. Coast Guard is weighing whether it should require recreational boaters to wear life vests, not simply carry them on board.

The Coast Guard also is considering requiring recreational boat owners to complete a boater safety course.

Both initiatives would be aimed at reducing boating accidents that caused 709 deaths nationally in 1996 _ 500 of them from drowning. Of those who drowned, 440 were not wearing a ``personal flotation device,″ commonly known as a life vest or life jacket.

``In most boating accidents, it’s not like you can say, `Oh gosh, we’re sinking. It’s time to put on a life jacket.′ Usually, it’s wham!, something happens, and all the sudden you’re in the water,″ said Lt. Gary Bracken, a Coast Guard spokesman.

``There’s no doubt that wearing personal flotation devices would save lives.″

Carl Perry, project manager for the proposed rule changes, said the requirements were only one idea under consideration for reducing boating deaths. The Coast Guard has not yet considered details such as what size boats might be exempted from such a requirement.

Both proposals ran into public opposition in a public comment period that ended today.

Concerning a life-vest use requirement, 315 of the 416 individuals or groups who responded by April 1 were against it. Sixteen supported it and 73 favored limited federal requirements, such as requiring that children wear them.

Regarding the boater safety proposal, the Coast Guard received 95 responses as of May 15, and the majority opposed it, even though no specifics have been released.

Dan Van Wormer of Ophelia, Va., who runs a sports-fishing and charter service in the Chesapeake Bay, said he has offered passengers life vests throughout his eight years in business. Almost everyone has refused it, saying it is too hot, bulky or restrictive.

``I think there’s a few number of (fatal) accidents when you consider all the people out on the water. And a lot of the people who have accidents and drown, it happens for other reasons, people who have been drinking and other factors,″ Van Wormer said.

Another Bay boater, Errol Thompson of Shady Side, Md., said, ``I personally go out and motor a lot alone, and I always wear a life jacket when I do that. But a lot of people are going to be resistant to wearing a life jacket, particularly if they are not alone, the weather is nice, because they’re uncomfortable and get in the way.″

The Coast Guard currently requires that all vessels carry at least one life vest for every passenger. There is no federal requirement to wear them.

Of 56 jurisdictions that cover the states and various U.S. territories and possessions, 48 have some conditions requiring life vest use. For example, in American Samoa, recreational boaters must wear a life vest at all times. Colorado requires them for water-skiers. In Florida, children under 6 must wear them, along with anyone using a personal watercraft such as a Jet Ski.

Eight jurisdictions have no requirements: Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Maryland, the Northern Mariana Islands, Oregon, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Only 18 state jurisdictions require operators to complete a boater safety course. They are Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin.

In light of complaints about the discomfort of standard life jackets, the Coast Guard last year started approving inflatable vests for recreational users.

One maker, Idaho-based Sospenders, has models that look like a belt or suspenders and inflate with the pull of a ripcord.

``Life vests are no good if people won’t wear them,″ said Scott Swanby, who founded the company 12 years ago after a friend drowned while the two hunted for ducks on the Snake River. Neither was wearing a life jacket because it was uncomfortable.

``We’ve found that if you make a product that’s not hot or bulky, people will use it,″ he said.

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