A PERFECT FIT
Though Some Consider Them Cumbersome, Personal Flotation Devices Save Lives
story by Adam Einck, LDWF Public Information
Personal flotation devices (PFD) or as they are more commonly called, life jackets, have proven effective over the years to do the main job for which they are intended and that is to save lives. However, the only way they can work properly is to wear them correctly.
While most boaters on the waterways understand the importance of wearing a proper fitting PFD, a number of boaters either refuse to wear one, do not have the correct type or do not have an appropriate size when it comes to outfitting themselves and their passengers with a suitable PFD.
Boating safety regulations state that there must be one properly fitting U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) approved PFD for every person on the boat. It is also required that anyone 16 years of age or younger must wear a properly fitting USCG approved PFD on a vessel that is less than 26 feet long while the vessel is underway. All persons on board a vessel that is less than 16 feet being propelled by a hand tiller outboard motor are required to wear a USCG approved PFD while the boat is underway.
Anyone on a personal watercraft such as a jet ski are also required to wear a USCG approved PFD at all times. Finally, those that are engaged in water sports including but not limited to water skiing, wake boarding, wake surfing and being towed on a tube must wear a USCG approved PFD.
Even with all these regulations, the vast majority are not required to wear a PFD, which mostly includes people on vessels that are console steering operated and are older than 16 years old.
“We really try to encourage everyone to wear a PFD on the water even if it isn’t required,” said Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Major Rachel Zechenelly, the state’s boating law administrator. “Unfortunately we have seen a lot of fatalities on the waterways involving people not wearing a PFD and maybe they would still be with us today if they had put one on.”
From 2015 to 2018, the state of Louisiana had 83 recreational boating fatalities. Out of those 83 fatalities, 69 were found without a PFD. In 2018, there were 20 recreational boating fatalities and all 20 were not wearing a PFD. In 2017, there were 19 fatalities and 13 were not wearing a PFD. A total of 24 fatalities in 2016 with 17 of them not wearing a PFD and in 2015 there were 20 fatalities with 19 of those not wearing a PFD.
Additionally, according to 2017 USCG nationwide statistics, 76 percent of all boating fatalities died of drowning with 84.5 percent of those who drowned were not wearing a PFD.
“We strongly believe that a lot of these fatalities could have been prevented had the deceased just been wearing a PFD,” said Zechenelly. “We have seen some instances where we’ve had survivors of a boating incident that were wearing a PFD and the deceased was not wearing a PFD. Those are the ones that really stick out and show the importance of a PFD.”
Common feedback that LDWF agents hear from people on why they choose to not wear a PFD is because they already know how to swim, have been boating their whole lives without any incidents, the PFDs are uncomfortable or too restricting and cumbersome.
“Even if you’ve been boating your whole life and are a strong swimmer, we still strongly encourage everyone to wear a PFD while underway because you never know what might happen,” said Zechenelly. “If you get suddenly ejected into the water and knocked unconscious about the only thing that can save your life at that time is a PFD.”
However, PFDs come in a variety of different types all with different advantages and disadvantages. Most recreational boaters usually have either a vest or inflatable kind of PFD.
“We recommend a USCG PFD that the person is most likely to wear at all times while underway and that usually comes down to comfort,” said Zechenelly. “The inflatable PFDs while a little more expensive are a lot more comfortable to wear especially during the hotter days of summer here in Louisiana.”
Recreational boaters can check the inside label of PFDs to make sure it is USCG approved.
Just as important as wearing a PFD is making sure it fits properly. PFDs are made for all ages, sizes and weight. A USCG approved PFD has a label somewhere on the PFD that indicates the proper user weight. It usually indicates the proper weight for the intended person and is labeled as adult, youth, child or infant sizes.
When using a PFD the user should also make sure the straps are securely fastened and all of them are tight for a snug fit.
“Sadly, we’ve also seen fatalities where someone entered the water with a PFD on only to have it slip off because it wasn’t properly worn or was the wrong size,” said Zechenelly.
The LDWF enforcement division is the leading agency for recreational boating safety in the state and offers free safe boating classes year round. Among the topics LDWF agents discuss is how to properly wear a PDF. To sign up for a free class, please visit www.wlf.louisiana.gov/boating.
It is mandatory for anyone born after Jan. 1, 1984 to take a safe boating class in order to operate a vessel in excess of 10 horsepower. LDWF started the boating education program in 2003. In the five years prior to 2003, there were an average of 39 recreational boating fatalities per year in Louisiana. In the past five years, Louisiana has averaged 20 fatalities per year.
“We are proud that our boating safety program has helped lower the number of fatalities in a year from the 30s and 40s back in the 1990s to where we are now in the teens and 20s, but we know we could lower the number of fatalities even more if more people would wear a PFD while underway,” said Zechenelly. “We believe that PFD use could bring annual fatality numbers into the single digits and low teens in the future.”
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