Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Mandatory lifejackets? Maybe not.

One of our club officers brought up the subject of a state law requiring that personal flotation devices (lifejackets, or PFDs) must be worn in certain circumstances. Certainly professional safety advocates, who'd like to mandate that everyone on deck on a boat being operated on the water be required to wear a PFD at all times, are likely to support such a requirement. And, in many circumstances, (solo, night sailing, rough weather, non-swimmers, cold water, low visibility, congested waterways, etc.) wearing PFDs is particularly prudent.

Yep, there's a state law that says that participants in regattas and marine parades have to wear PFDs. Getting certain people we know to actually wear them, especially on a calm, hot day, and perhaps while coasting along lazily on a self-righting keelboat maybe even equipped with lifelines to give that extra feeling of security (real or imaginary), is a whole 'nother story.

Also, the same law has to fit a huge variety of circumstances -- jet boat races at 50 to 100 mph, PWCs, beach catamarans, dinghies, and keelboats with widely varying weather conditions, air and water temperatures, wind speeds, day/night conditions, and differing bodies of water.

Throw in different levels of crew training, temperament, and sobriety. And, add in accident statistics that show that sailboaters, especially in organized events with aid available nearby, are relatively free of casualty-producing accidents compared to personal watercraft operators, anglers, and boaters who aren't members of a club or an organized activity.

As a result, the law feels like a one-size-fits-not-quite-all approach that's just a bit too snug.

Also, although more comfortable auto-inflatables (SOSPenders, Mustang, etc.) are made and are becoming less expensive, they are still expensive by the standards of New Mexicans and are certainly not the sort of thing you find in Wal-Mart. Only the more sophisticated and careful boaters are likely to order one from West Marine or some other chandlery. How soon do you think it will be before the marina stores or boat shops at the Butte and in our cities will have inflatables on sale for under $100? How many boat manufacturers are still quite proud to sell boats with "safety packages" containing uncomfortable cheapo PFDs instead of ones that people are more likely to wear?

And, to make things more interesting, many sailors aren't very aware of rules and if anything, tend to favor a "no rules" approach to their sailing recreation. We all know many examples. And, some boaters at the lake are foreign nationals who aren't particularly aware of US boating laws or American safety consciousness.

Other PFDs may be more comfortable than the old Mae Wests but comfort is still a relative term. (And, the jackets may not fit as comfortably after some holiday boating yahoos have had several beers, rueful grin.)

So, it ain't easy. And, the name of the game, as those of you in the insurance profession of course know, isn't risk elimination; it's risk management. We can try to support the things that most efficiently and realistically reduce risk for our sailors, whether it be wearing PFDs appropriately, requiring two-way radios, providing guidelines on abandoning races, providing chase/safety boats, hosting training, or doing boat checks.

However, we're a voluntary organization, and the more freedom we have to figure out what makes sense for a particular set of circumstances, then the more cooperation and voluntary safety observance we'll get. It would be particularly helpful if legislators and law enforcers sought our advice before indiscriminately adopting and enforcing one-size-fits-all safety legislation.


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