Thursday, June 24, 2004
Bill Cochran's Outdoors: Yeah, life jackets are confining. So are coffins.
Bill Cochran's Outdoors
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- A good trade: Virginia trout for Kentucky elk
- Forget the odds-makers; Salem’s John Crews believes he can win the Bassmaster Classic.
- The good and bad of the 2012 saltwater fishing season
- Column archive
Bill's Field Reports
- Virginia General Assembly goes soft on outdoor issues
- Quail Unlimited calls it quits
- Field reports archive
All of my life I have tried to save my hide and set an example by wearing a life jacket when boating. I’ve had people belittle me and I’ve been told that life jackets are too hot and confining. My answer: So are coffins.
If the upcoming July 4th holiday is anything like Memorial Day, several boaters out to enjoy water recreation will lose their lives. Some because they weren’t wearing a life jacket.
Four died in boating accidents in Virginia during the Memorial Day holiday. One was killed when his personal watercraft collided with a bass boat on Smith Mountain Lake. Three drowned after going overboard. None of the three was wearing a life jacket.
Some 39 boating accidents were reported to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries from Jan. 1 through June 1. Twelve of these were fatalities, all but one drownings. Ten of the 12 victims were not wearing life jackets.
No one is certain how many deaths could be avoided if boaters wore life jackets, or PFDs, as they are called, but the best estimate is that it would be around 80 percent, said Charlie Sledd, Virginia’s State Boating Law Administrator.
In 2003, 18 of the 21 boating fatalities in Virginia likely would have been prevented if the individuals had been wearing a life jacket, said Sledd, who is the second in command in the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
“Our No. 1 safety message to the boating public is; “Wear a life jacket,’” said Sledd. That comes before No. 2 and 3, which are: Don’t mix alcohol with boating and take a boating course.
Even so, the department gives boaters the liberty to make choices about life jacket use, even stupid choices. It has not campaigned to mandate their use. During recent years, when bills have been introduced in the General Assembly to require youngsters to wear life jackets while boating, DGIF has provided information but has not become a cheerleader.
Its wardens generally do not enforce federal regulations that call for youngsters under age 13 to wear jackets while on water under federal jurisdiction. For the most part, the DGIF routinely adopts federal boating laws as its own, for the sake of uniformity. But not this time.
Should the use of life jackets be mandated, like the use of seat belts in automobiles or the use of blaze orange for hunters during the deer season? That’s the kind of question that will get chatlines buzzing, often with way more opposition than support.
The issue will be addressed on a high level by the National Transportation Safety Board on Aug. 25 during a meeting in Ashburn, Va. The board makes recommendations, but does not set policy for boating activities.
Sledd said he plans to attend “as a person in the audience.” He holds a high rank in the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and was a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves.
Officials attending the meeting from across the country are expected to come down on both sides of the issue. Virginia’s position likely will remain consistent with what the DGIF has promoted in the past.
“Our department is 100 percent supportive of the wearing of life jackets,” Sledd emphasized. “But at what point should government dictate that you have to wear a life jacket in an activity that is voluntary recreation and at your leisure time? I really don’t have an answer to that. My view is that you can have a very effective state message about wearing life jackets in the absence of a law that requires it.”
An accident on the lower James River earlier this month underscores the use and abuse of life jackets. A 24-foot boat overturned and began to sink with five people aboard. A 6-year-old boy was trapped in the cabin.
It was more than two hours before the youngster could be freed from the cabin. He had been wearing a life jacket, holding his head in an air pocket. Some of the adults nearly drowned. Two had life jackets, but didn’t know how to use them, rescuers said.
One of the boaters was quoted as saying, “No. 1, I need to learn to swim and No. 2 I need to keep my life jacket on, even if I can swim. I never expected that 24-footer to go as quickly as it did.”