Life jacket debate continues, technology improves

Personal floatation devices have been in the news a lot lately, with both state and federal agencies examining hot button issues like who should be required to wear them, when they should be worn, and what types are appropriate for children.

Age requirements
As technology evolves to address both comfort and safety, one question is whether inflatable PFDs should be approved for use by children. Currently they are not approved for anyone under age 16.

At the end of March, the United States Coast Guard touched on the issue when it published a direct final rule that paves the way for future rulemaking addressing use of inflatable PFDs by children.

The rule — effective Sept. 26 unless the agency receives an adverse comment — mainly updates the standards referenced by Coast Guard regulations and makes minor regulatory text revisions, but it strongly hints that the Coast Guard is getting ready to take another look at the issue of inflatable PFDs for children, based on the industry’s experience with inflatable PFDs during the past 15 years as well as advances in inflatable PFD technology.

That’s something the National Marine Manufacturers Association and other boating groups support, since their position is that more comfortable life jackets get worn more frequently.

“Such a move, if taken by the USCG, will encourage youth life jacket wear as a result of the innovative design and comfort benefits of inflatable life jackets,” the NMMA said when the rulemaking was announced.

Mandatory wear
Another, more controversial, issue is whether life jacket usage should be mandatory.

In early April, the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Boating Safety Advisory Council approved a resolution that asks the Coast Guard to look into expanding life jacket mandates.

The resolution proposes the Coast Guard explore requirements for life jacket wear for recreational boaters riding personal watercraft, human powered vessels or any vessel less than 18 feet in length, as well as any person being towed while engaged in water sports.

The resolution asks the Coast Guard to work with its partners to inform the public of the potential benefits of the regulation and gauge public opinion before making decisions on the topic.

In addition, the resolution asks the Coast Guard to streamline the life jacket testing and approval process to reduce the overall cost of life jackets, support innovation and creativity in life jacket design, and allow improved life jacket models to reach consumers more quickly and easily.

Boating groups generally oppose mandatory adult life jacket wear and support boater safety education and the development of innovative life jackets that encourage people to wear them.

As recently as April, Nicole Vasilaros, state government affairs manager for the NMMA, testified at a Massachusetts State House hearing on a bill requiring all adult boaters to wear life jackets on board any boat under 20 feet while the boat is in operation, saying the group did not believe such a law would serve to improve boating safety. (Massachusetts law currently requires children under the age of 12 wear life jackets.)

New ideas in design
As the debates continue, the BoatUS Foundation and Underwriter’s Laboratory are promoting the one aspect of life jacket safety that everyone agrees on: innovation. The groups recently announced the winners of their 2011 “Innovation in Life Jacket Design Competition.”

The competition, which began last year and was open to anyone, challenged participants to build a better life jacket.

Of the original 35 entries, 15 semi-finalists were selected and short videos of the designs were posted online for the public to pick their favorites. In addition, expert judges voted for their favorite designs at the International Boating and Water Safety Summit in Savannah, Ga.

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