PFDs Are Proven Lifesavers. Should Boaters be Required to Wear Them?

Two men in canoe tipping over.

Good thing they're already wearing their PFDs. It's too late now to put one on! Photo by larryzou via Creative Commons and flickr.

Personal flotation devices (PFDs), otherwise known as life jackets, are proven lifesavers for boaters—if they're properly worn. Should boaters be required to wear them? A recent incident at the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River confirms that's a good idea:

On the afternoon of August 23rd, four friends who were rafting together on the rain-swollen Delaware River fell out of the raft when it hit a standing wave in Staircase Rapids and flipped over. Only one of the raft’s occupants was wearing a lifejacket at the time.

He and two others were able to swim ashore, but Hin Hon Siu, 36, of Flushing, New York, swam downstream. Ranger Kevin Reish and park VIP Robert Hare were on boat patrol not far downstream at the time. When they received a visitor report of people in the water, they responded, spotted Siu, and threw a flotation device to him.

Siu was barely above the waterline, though, and was unable to utilize it. Hare jumped into the river in an attempt to save Siu, but Siu slipped below the surface of the swollen and muddy river and disappeared.

The missing man's body was found four days later, after an extensive search by personnel from multiple agencies.

Unfortunately, such incidents are all too common. According to the U. S. Coast Guard, nearly 90% of recreational boaters who drowned were not wearing a life jacket. On the Upper Delaware River, 58 people have drowned since the park began operation in 1980. Only three of those were wearing a life jacket, and in those cases the jacket was improperly fitted or worn.

It's probably not surprising that all but three of the victims were men, and their average age was about 28 years. While some of these fatalities involved swimmers, others were boating-related.

Existing rules require children age 12 and under to wear a life jacket while on the river, and the park already has an active river safety program, including help from an active volunteer organization, the National Canoe Safety Patrol. Trained volunteers from that group work closely with park personnel to educate visitors about water safety and assist when things go awry.

Even those efforts can't prevent every problem, and in the wake of the recent incident, Upper Delaware River Superintendent Vidal Martinez believes more has to be done. “We must take additional measures to avoid these tragedies,” he said.

I spoke to Mr. Martinez by phone earlier this week, and he's actively pursuing a strategy with the commercial firms that rent canoes and rafts on the river. His idea: a regulation to require boaters to actually wear their life jackets. The plan is still under discussion, but a proposed regulation would likely apply when river levels reach a point where higher water and stronger current make boating more hazardous. Implementing such guidelines would be pretty easy, based on readily available information from river gauging stations such as this one.

Information from the park website helps explain the rationale for this approach. The Upper Delaware may be a river too many people don't take seriously enough:

The Upper Delaware is the longest free-flowing river in the Northeast. It includes riffles and Class I and II rapids between placid pools and eddies. Its average depth is 4 to 5 feet, but 12- to 18-foot holes are common, and many are even deeper, to 113 feet at Big Eddy, Narrowsburg, NY. The river can rise rapidly after heavy rains and after releases from dams on its tributaries. Obstructions include large boulders, bridge piers and eel weirs.

Martinez is meeting with boat rental firms along the river to discuss the changes, and he's finding backing for the idea. In an editorial earlier this week, an area newspaper, The Pocono Record, also voiced strong support for the idea of mandatory life jackets for boaters.

Next up is an important meeting with the Upper Delaware Council, "a formal partnership of local, state, and federal governments and agencies which have joined together to manage the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River." This is a critical step because the Upper Delaware is not a typical national park. The area includes about 73 miles of the Delaware River on the Pennsylvania-New York border, but NPS owns very little property, and major decisions about the river need the Council's support.

Authority for a life jacket regulation is already on the books. The superintendent of a NPS area can go through a clearly-defined process to "require that a PFD be worn or carried on designated waters, at designated times and/or during designated water based activities."

There's precedent for such guidelines in other parks. At Grand Canyon National Park, for example, a U.S. Coast Guard approved Type I, III or V personal flotation device "must be worn and fastened properly at all times" while on the Colorado River.

The rapids at Grand Canyon are clearly more challenging that those on the Delaware River, and the Grand Canyon regulations apply specific guidelines to boating on the Colorado River: "All PFDs must have a USCG-approved label stating the PFD is designed for whitewater rafting, canoeing, sailing and/or kayaking. General boating or ski vests are prohibited."

Categories for different classes of PFDs can be confusing; you'll find an explanation on this website. Those Type V items include life jackets specifically intended for uses such as whitewater boating.

There's a lot of work ahead before a regulation can go into effect on the Upper Delaware, and it's not a yet a done deal. There will undoubtedly be some who will protest it's an infringement on their right to take risks if they want to do so, but there are compelling reasons to make the change.

Many drownings occur because the individual was complacent about the risks or overestimated his ability to overcome them. Here's some startling information: according to the Safe Boating Campaign, the majority of people who drown in boating accidents know how to swim. They become victims anyway because they may be weighed down by clothing, or become exhausted or develop hypothermia, or may be injured when they unexpectedly find themselves in the water.

The profile of victims on the Delaware River is also significant and typical: a high percentage of males under age 30. In many outdoor recreation situations, complacency, peer pressure, bravado and "it can't happen to me" overcome good judgment on the water.

Would some people ignore a legal requirement to wear a life jacket? Undoubtedly, but many others would comply, and the result would be lives saved. The excellent safety record on trips at the Grand Canyon offers one example of what can be accomplished.

Deaths which could be prevented by the simple act of wearing a PFD impose an enormous emotional and financial cost on families and friends, but if that's not adequate reason to require use of PFDs, there's also the burden and needless risk for public institutions. Multi-day searches for victims are both expensive and sometimes dangerous and the volunteer on the Delaware River who jumped into the water in dangerous conditions in an attempt to save the latest victim put his own life at risk.

There's an easy solution—just wear a PFD. Unfortunately, far too many people fail to do so. Can stronger regulations help save lives? Experience says they can.

Comments

The answer to your title question, at least where the person is question is an adult, is an unequivocal NO. Freedom means the right to make your own choices, and yes, perhaps to be stupid in them. We already have way too much nanny government, interfering with our choices because "they", in their infinite wisdom, know was is best for us.

Warn of the dangers? Certainly. Encourage use of PFDs? Yes. Require? Absolutely not.

Mark

Most states now have mandatory seat belt regulations. Many have motorcycle helmet requirements.

Certainly a lot of this has to do with mandating a level of personal safety, but then again a good part has to do with government costs involved when it's necessarily to hospitalize and transport people who are severely injured. Seat belts especially are useful because drivers can get incapacitated simply by getting thrown around even in mild crashes when they could otherwise still be conscious and in control of their vehicles.

As I see it, the biggest problem with rafters is the more serious risks to rescue personnel if they attempt to secure someone who is not wearing a PFD vs someone who is. The person floating on his/her back isn't in imminent danger of drowning and rescue personnel can choose less risky methods of extraction if they have more time. Even an unconscious (ever seen rocks?) person can still stay alive.

I guide about 10-12 trips a summer down the river, and always wear a PFD. I think wearing a PFD is a good idea. I think the government legislating requirements is a bad idea. Our freedom in America includes the right to be stupid and dangerous. Is the river really that dangerous? Considering the 10,000 people/weekend that use the river and the 2 deaths per/year I'd say it isn't cause for alarm.

-Zachary G

I'm a commercial river guide, and we would let no one on the river without a PFD. Neither would you ever see a guide without one. The more you know about the river, the more respectful you are of what it can do. In some cases, not even a PFD can save you. But it's clear that you are much, much safer with one than without one, and the designs they are coming out with now make them very unobtrusive. I wore a bulky "Mae West" jacket all the way down the Colorado on a 30-day trip and was thankful for it. Now you can get good PFDs that you're barely aware that you're wearing. But when it comes to requiring their use, I'm thinking we might just want to let evolution take its natural course.

For adults, definitely not!

Gary