Mark Rosenker and Jeff Hoedt are boaters.
Neither is itching to see all adult boaters required to wear personal floatation devices — they simply would like to see fewer boaters drown.
And, they believe, increasing PFD wear is the most direct way to meet that goal.
The vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and the chief of the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Boating Safety are therefore offering the boating community a chance to increase PFD wear rates through voluntary means — a chance that the industry can’t afford to miss.
A study conducted by the Recreational Marine Research Center indicates that 86 percent of boaters oppose mandatory PFD wear for adults and a third of boaters will reduce their boating activity if required to wear a PFD.
Having just generated the momentum to get the Grow Boating ball rolling, now is not the time for industry growth to be threatened. To avoid it, the boating industry must get serious about helping to change boater behavior.
Stealing the spotlight
Over the past year, PFD wear has attracted quite a bit of attention.
“Lifejackets have been getting attention for years,” claims the Coast Guard’s Hoedt. “But analyzing the wear rates produced by the observational study woke us up to what’s happening in the boating community. We have a lot of people dying because they didn’t have a lifejacket on. In the boats where a person is most likely to end up in the water, the wear rate is 10 percent or less for adults.”
The study, conducted by the JSI Research & Training Institute, revealed that about 22 percent of boaters wear their lifejackets. If you take out PWC riders and children, both of which are mandated to wear PFDs in most states, that number is actually much lower, suggests Hoedt.
Last April, the Coast Guard turned to the National Safe Boating Advisory Council for advice on increasing wear rates. It even asked whether it should consider making PFD wear mandatory for adults in boats less than 21 feet in length.
The council recommended instead that USCG work with its boating safety partners, including the boating industry and state agencies, to come up with effective voluntary measures to enhance wear rates.
A few months later, in August, the NTSB held a symposium on the topic. Then, NMMA and the PFD Manufacturers Association assembled a large industry group to brainstorm methods for increasing voluntary PFD wear during IBEX in October.
A few days afterward, Boating Writers International handed the NTSB’s Rosenker the mike to address PFD wear during its annual “Newsmaker” event at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.
Both government bodies have also been sending representatives to boating industry events, such as the Marine Retailers Association of America Convention.
This focus on PFD wear has sent ripples of fear spreading through the industry about future regulation. But the Coast Guard and the NTSB are currently concentrating on increasing voluntary PFD wear. By doing everything it can to support this effort, the industry helps prevent the possibility of mandatory PFD wear regulations for adults.
Putting children and education first
The NTSB actually doesn’t have the power to mandate anything. The agency is tasked with making recommendations to federal regulatory agencies, state legislative bodies and various manufacturers as to how they can prevent future accidents.
The NTSB’s recommendations aren’t taken lightly, however. The agency, which is known for the methodical way it investigates accidents, is one of a few that reports to Congress, according to Rosenker. This gives it a credibility that comes in handy when lobbying for its recommendations on a federal, state and industry level.
Right now, the NTSB has two main objectives, both of which are supported by NMMA: getting those six states that don’t currently require children to wear PFDs onboard and those 17 states without mandatory boater education requirements to adopt such regulations.
The hope is that by making PFD wear mandatory for children, those children will continue to wear them once they become adults. It is also hoped that adults on board will be more likely to wear PFD if their children are mandated to do so, thereby setting an example.
Making boater education a requirement is likely to increase PFD wear rates, according to Rosenker. In addition, knowing the rules of the road helps prevent accidents that can lead to fatalities.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard is brainstorming ways it can boost voluntary PFD wear. For Hoedt, preventing drowning is a personal goal.
As a former state officer, Hoedt has come upon boating-related fatalities many times.
“I’ve had to tell families they’ve lost a loved one,” he says. “After that, you take it very seriously.”
Hoedt agrees with the NTSB that mandatory education has the potential to reduce boating fatalities. In fact, the Coast Guard’s advisory council has encouraged the agency to seek the authority to require boater education, something he says it is considering.
The pressure is on
The Coast Guard and the NTSB say they admire the boating industry’s role in improving boating safety thus far, but they also believe there is more progress to be made.
“The industry frankly is smarter in marketing, advocacy and dealing with customers than we could ever be,” says Rosenker. “They are closer to them than we are. We think they are partners in this effort, perhaps even a leading partner. They are probably the most effective arm in our effort.”
Hoedt recognizes that the Coast Guard also bears some responsibility. Ultimately, though, it’s up to the boater to take on the brunt of the responsibility for his own safety, he admits.
“It’s not just about being in compliance with the law. It goes beyond that,” Hoedt explains. “Boaters must prepare themselves for the ‘what if’ scenarios.”
However, if the boater doesn’t recognize this responsibility and PFD wear regulation is adopted, it is the boating industry that will suffer as a result.
Among the steps the Coast Guard would like to see the boating industry take is growing the visibility of PFDs at boat shows, in sales literature and in magazine and TV advertising. In particular, Hoedt would like to see the industry help educate boaters about the different styles of lifejackets.
“A lot of people still think of old-fashioned lifejackets, and people don’t want to wear what they see as unsightly or uncomfortable,” he says.
Both Rosenker and Hoedt acknowledge the vast strides PFD manufacturers have made in introducing innovative PFDs in a range of colors and designs, including inflatable packs, suspenders and jackets.
“We need to encourage PFD manufacturers to keep thinking out of the box,” says Hoedt. “What new designs can we come up with that would make people want to put them on?”
Regulation on the way?
Following its August symposium on PFD wear, the NTSB analyzed the information presented with the intention of preparing a report, which had yet to be released as of Boating Industry press time. NTSB will use the report to issue recommendations, something Rosenker doesn’t see happening before the summer.
The gist of those recommendations are still unclear. However, Rosenker suggests it’s unlikely the NTSB would recommend all adults be required to wear PFDs on all boats.
“I don’t think any of us are trying to be unreasonable or overzealous by saying whenever you’re on a boat, you should be wearing a PFD,” he says. “That would be an unreasonable thing to say. But there are certain types of situations where it makes sense to have them on or closely available to you.”
Some of those circumstances, he suggests, are when the weather is bad or when operating a small boat alone.
“If someone invited me on their 40-something-foot boat, I’m not going to put a PFD on,” he says. “I don’t think it’s reasonable to wear a PFD while I’m inside my boat having dinner.”
In fact, the recommendations may not involve mandatory wear for adults at all. Rosenker certainly recognizes that there is little public support for such a regulation.
“The vast majority of the boating community doesn’t wish to have PFD wear mandated,” he says. “We don’t want to force things down people’s throats and make them angry with their government. Politically, it is very difficult to think mandatory PFD use could happen today. You can’t push this too far down the line or you’ll get a backlash that will set us back a decade.”
The Coast Guard, on the other hand, has said it would like to see the wear rate double to 44 percent by 2007. The industry is skeptical of whether these are reasonable goals.
“The real goal is to reduce boating-related drownings, not to achieve some arbitrary level of PFD wearage,” says Thom Dammrich, NMMA president.
Regardless, the Coast Guard has the power to put PFD wear regulations in place. Hoedt says it’s even possible that such regulation could be considered before 2007 if significant progress isn’t made over the next few years.
“I think it is going to be quite a challenge to accomplish those goals in that time frame,” he admits. “We will look at whether we can make some substantial progress toward those goals through voluntary measures. Our office would like to see at least over the next year or two whether we can come up with effective measures and implement those measures.”
Hoedt says the Coast Guard is obligated to take public opinion into consideration. But that doesn’t mean public support is necessary to pass a regulation. The boating industry cannot assume widespread public opposition to mandatory PFD wear will prevent regulation from becoming a reality.
For that reason, NMMA and its affiliate, PFDMA, have been taking action. Through a grant from the Coast Guard, the PFDMA produced a PFD education awareness video. This project includes significant outreach to the industry — including boat builders, dealers, retailers, show managers and marine trade associations.
Dammrich says the “toolkit” that was developed with the video is full of great ideas on how to incorporate PFDs into business efforts. NMMA show managers and MTA boat show producers will be encouraged to incorporate PFD visibility into their shows.
Ultimately, however, it will be up to individual dealers, builders and show organizers to run with the ideas featured in the video and toolkit.
While the industry is certainly not alone in bearing responsibility for changing boaters’ attitudes and behaviors as they relate to PFD, it does have a large stake in the outcome — both in terms of keeping its customers safe and the potential impact of PFD regulation.
“It is pretty clear,” says Dammrich, “that mandatory PFD wear for adults would have a negative impact on the industry and the boating public.”
Setting An Example
The Coast Guard is turning to the states for ideas on reducing boating fatalities.
As part of its effort to reduce boating fatalities and increase PFD wear nationwide, the U.S. Coast Guard has been studying the boating safety efforts of various states.
“We know why some states are doing well,” says Jeff Hoedt, chief of the USCG Office of Boating Safety. Other states are a mystery, he admits.
Three that stand out as examples are Alabama, Minnesota and Michigan.
Alabama is the only state that requires motorboat operators to obtain a license, similar to the driver’s license issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Under the law, which took effect in 1997, boaters were given five years to get the license.
In comparing the five years before the law went into effect with the five years afterward, there was a 41-percent decrease in fatalities, according to Hoedt. During the same period of time, there was a 10-percent decline in fatalities on a nation-wide basis.
Many other states have made some sort of boater education mandatory, but a large percentage of those have issued “born after” dates as a way to inch toward full compliance for boaters of all ages.
“It’ll be a long time before you’ll see the effects,” comments Hoedt.
Minnesota and Michigan are still somewhat of a mystery. Their fatality ratios are low, though neither of the states has made boater education mandatory, and they are among the top 10 states for boating registrations.
Some have theorized that the low fatality rate is due to the cold weather, which creates a short boating season, but Hoedt says other cold weather states don’t have similarly low rates. He believes the rates have more to do with the states’ emphasis on youth education over the past 40 years.
Other states with significant decreases in fatality rates are Georgia and Iowa. The Coast Guard is trying to learn from all of these states so that it can share their strategies with other parts of the country, says Hoedt.
Declining budgets a factor?
Unfortunately, state governments have faced declining budgets in recent years, which may have impacted their ability to fund boating safety initiatives and may also impact future efforts.
Ohio recently took action to overcome this obstacle. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Watercraft has teamed up with The Orchard Group, a marketing, PR and sales consulting organization, to develop sponsorships that promote boating safety.
This public-private partnership will focus its efforts on reducing deaths and injuries on state waterways by encouraging people to wear lifejackets and increasing attendance to boating education classes. The partnership calls for at least $1 million to be raised each year through 2008.
Currently, 72 percent of Ohio boaters have yet to take a safety course and 34 percent rarely, if ever, wear a lifejacket, according to the ODNR Division of Watercraft. Open boats are a particular target of the campaign, as more than half of those who drown each year are in open boats, the division stated.
Is Boating Safe Enough?
Some industry leaders feel the Coast Guard emphasis on reducing fatalities is misleading.
There were 703 recreational boating fatalities in 2003, down 6 percent compared to the previous year, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. This represents a continuation of a 12-year downward trend.
Yet Rear Adm. J.W. Underwood, U.S. Coast Guard director for operations policy recently said, “There are still far too many deaths, injuries and accidents.”
Many in the marine industry question how the Coast Guard determines what is “too many.” The boating industry has a similar fatality rate to other recreational activities, such as bicycle riding, and the number of injuries reported (3,888 in 2003) is often significantly lower. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that more than 82,000 people drown or are injured in backyard swimming pools each year, and 113,000 skateboarders and 540,000 bicyclists go to the emergency room, Phil Keeter, president of the Marine Retailer Association of America, points out.
“With no public outcry for mandatory adult PFD wear, with no Congressional inquiries, and with a truly outstanding and improving safety record, our members wonder why the Coast Guard paints such a dismal picture of our safety record,” Keeter wrote in a recent letter to the U.S.C.G.
It seems, however, that the Coast Guard is more concerned with the extent to which boating fatalities and injuries can be prevented than the rate itself.
Jeff Hoedt, chief of the USCG Office of Boating Safety, says he can’t answer the question of what fatality rate would be acceptable. He did, however, state that reducing fatalities is part of the Coast Guard’s mission, and while USCG has been given new missions over the years, it typically hasn’t had missions taken off its plate.
Ultimately, no matter how safe boating is judged to be, the Coast Guard continues to have the power to create PFD wear regulations. And unless the adult PFD wear rate increases significantly in the coming years, regulation will continue to be a real threat, one the industry strongly opposes.
“There are lots of boating situations where the risk is relatively low and wearing a PFD just isn’t necessary,” says Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “That doesn’t mean that someone won’t drown in one of those situations as a result. There is risk in being on the water. Adults should manage that risk. If you want to eliminate all boating deaths, just ban boating.”