Hundreds of preventable drownings have prompted federal regulators to consider whether to require boaters to wear life vests, igniting a safety-versus-personal freedom debate akin to the clash over mandatory motorcycle helmets.
The National Transportation Safety Board recently held a forum in Virginia during which boating-safety officials discussed new laws to make the use of life vests mandatory. Boating industry representatives blasted the government for meddling.
Transportation officials say they are not proposing a life-jacket law, only exploring the need for one.
Last year, 80 percent of the nation's 481 boating-related drowning victims were not wearing life vests. While many states require children and personal watercraft users to wear vests, only 1 in 5 boaters routinely wears them, the U.S. Coast Guard reports.
"Sailors are an independent lot," said Gail Hine, chairwoman of the women's committee of the Southern California Yachting Association. "You're not going to put on an over-the-collar flotation device. They're like sausages. They're designed to keep you afloat, not for doing things on your boat."
The results of a Michigan State University survey of about 4,000 boaters nationwide echoed those sentiment.
Eighty-six percent of respondents opposed a life-jacket mandate. Most agreed that a skipper "can make his or her own decision" about wearing one. One-third of respondents indicated they might go boating less often if forced to wear a life vest.
However, a U.S. Coast Guard report describes a life-jacket law as the "most effective" way to curb boating deaths.
Life jackets help boaters survive "cold shock" when they fall into frigid water. The Santa Cruz Yacht Club in Santa Cruz, Calif., requires racers to wear life vests because ocean temperatures in Monterey Bay can dip to 50 degrees.
Chris Woolaway, who studies boating safety and education for Hawaii Sea Grant, a federally funded program to promote ocean conservation, recalls rescue teams searching in vain for a fisherman after his empty boat was found off the archipelago.
"You get people who say (life-jacket use) infringes on their personal freedom," says Fred Messmann, a past president of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, who asked the transportation board to hold the hearing. "The next time I have to tell a family their loved one is dead and say a life jacket could have prevented that, maybe they (opponents of life-jacket laws) could accompany me."
In the meantime, state officials and the boating industry have agreed to redouble efforts to educate boaters about the dangers of water play without a vest.
Forty-three states call for boater education stressing life-vest usage, and the Coast Guard requires boats to carry a life jacket for each passenger. National Safe Boating Council President Virgil Chambers advocates more boater education. The council sponsors a safe-boating week, public service announcements and slogans such as "Life Jackets Float, You Don't."
"They think you're asking them to put on a Titanic life vest," Chambers says. "That's what they see: You can't get a good tan, you can't enjoy yourself, you can't turn and see the wind and the waves with that ugly thing on your body."
Chambers recommends wider use of new life jackets that are lighter and more fashionable. They cost $12 to $15 and up. He says manufacturers can showcase sun-kissed passengers wearing life vests to advertise boats.
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