Mandatory PFDs?

Will ubiquitous laws decreeing wear make our safe sport safer?

If you read this month’s Following Seas, by my much-admired colleague David Seidman, you might follow the logic to agree that, yes, only the daft will go about in boats without life jackets firmly buckled to one’s person.

It’s a debate I find myself waffling on from time to time. I agree that the 736 tragic deaths that took place in 2009 deprived 736 families of a loved one. I’ve been close enough to the aftermath of boating accidents to be nauseated by the result.The worst tragedies are those caused by stupidity — almost all of them are. Machinery failure caused only nine. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 727 boaters died from causes that amounted to stupidity. They’re listed officially in the report as operator inattention, operator inexperience, excessive speed, improper lookout (which is not looking where you are going — or not looking at all), alcohol abuse, failure to know and exercise the Rules of the Road and failure to assess the risk of weather, waters and other conditions. Alcohol alone contributed to 120 of the fatalities.

You could restrict all of those perpetrators from the ranks of boaters, as far as I am concerned, but the 727 deaths they caused were not all those of perps. Some were victims. Not victims of failure to wear a life jacket, but victims of some skipper’s poor judgment. In most cases of which I am familiar, stupidity is a synonym for poor judgment. Maybe ignorance would be a better word.

It’s hard to build technology to combat poor judgment — especially in sports. In any sport there is a risk. Motorcycling is an example. The fatality rate in that sport absolutely dwarfs that of boating in terms of sheer numbers — more than 4,500 fatalities in 2009 — and the death rate per 100,000 participants is excruciatingly higher. Yet, mandatory helmet laws have been passed, and repealed in many states on both libertarian and statistical rationale. Even bicycling posted 716 fatalities in 2008, a number steady since 1998. You could argue that there are more bicycles than boats and so that number is proportionally low, but in truth, bikes carry one person — boats carry up to dozens. With 12 million registered boats carrying the national marine manufacturers association’s estimate of almost 70 million participants, you have a fatality rate of 0.0001 percent. The only way you could be safer is to stay home.

I take that back. According to U.S. News & World Report, 18,000 die of accidents each year in the home.

Here’s my point. Boating is safe, and using draconian measures to require 70 million people to wear life jackets when good judgment alone could keep everyone alive is wrong.

You want to make boating safer? Stamp out ignorance with more education. Eliminate drunkenness with enforcement. Then, let skilled and sober skippers set the requirements for keeping their crews happy and safe.

But please just shut up about mandatory PFD wear.

OK. I’m at my desk. Waiting for your rebuttal. I have my helmet on.

Randy Vance, Editor-in-Chief
editor@boatingmag.com