Time To Breathe Some New Life Into Life Jackets?
By Chris Edmonston
BOATU.S. FOUNDATION FOR BOATING SAFETY & CLEAN WATER
Bye, Bye, Land: Sally Hershey from Sandusky, Ohio,
captured her son Trent’s burgeoning fascination
with being on the water last summer as they cut a
wake out of Port Clinton, Ohio. (Finalist, “Lifestyle”)
or the past decade, the U.S.
Coast Guard, with the assistance of boating safety groups,
has made a concerted effort
to increase life jacket wear
rates through advertising, public outreach,
and boater education. But despite all the
messaging, life jacket usage has remained
steady; boaters don life jackets around 20
percent of the time, a number that hasn’t
changed significantly in many years.
Disappointed with boaters’ lack of
response, the Coast Guard’s Office of
Boating Safety is currently publicly discussing ways to increase the wear rate, including potential federal requirements making
it mandatory for boaters to wear life jackets
in certain situations, or on certain types of
boats. But for all their efforts to increase
voluntary use of life jackets, two of the
biggest obstacles have not been overcome:
cost and comfort.
Certainly, the most comfortable Coast
Guard-approved life jackets today are inflatable, but they’re also the most expensive. The cheapest inflatable jacket costs
nearly 20 times as much as the $5 bulky
orange Type II vests so many boaters carry
aboard to satisfy Coast Guard requirements. Voluntary life jacket wear is caught
in a classic Catch- 22; comfort isn’t cheap,
and cheap isn’t comfortable.
Some subsets of boaters, such as
day sailors, and racing sailors in particular, wear life jackets more frequently, but
they’re often using life jackets that don’t
bear Coast Guard approval. These jackets
are made by an array of companies such
as Gill, SECUMAR, Zhik, and Spinlock,
among others, for use in Europe. Over
the past few years, they’ve migrated to
the United States and found a home with
people who want the particular design
characteristics offered by these jackets.
The Gill Pro Racer, for example, hasn’t
gone through the approval process to meet
U.S. standards, which are different from
those in the European Union, where it