Mandatory Life Preservers

Update: Bill died in committee.

The Massachusetts Legislature is considering a bill to make the wearing of lifejackets mandatory at all times for anyone operating, or aboard a boat under 20′ in length. This isn’t the first time the general assembly has taken on the issue – the last a few years back with a Cape legislator, in reaction to the drowning deaths of some kayakers — and it probably won’t be the last.

I’m opposed for practical reasons. First, lifejackets can be cumbersome and interfere with good seamanship, especially for people engaged in more strenuous aquatic activities such as racing small sailboats or rowing a racing scull. I realize Coast Guardsmen wear them as part of their standard operating uniform, but asking the public to obey is going to lead to a phenomenon of false security. Second, the law already makes it mandatory that a PFD be aboard all motorboats, and many yacht clubs enforce the same rule for sailboats in their fleets. Third, wearing a life jacket will not necessarily prevent an on the water tragedy and could lead to a false sense of security when many small boats should remain on their moorings on the beach and not venture out in adverse conditions at all.

The issue is not whether or not life jackets save lives. The issue is whether or not bad sailors know when when to take risks or not. I learned an important lesson covering the waterfront in San Francisco in the early 1980s for Soundings, the national boating newspaper: most drowning victims fished out by the Coast Guard were found with their flies down — e.g. fisherman taking a leak. Would a life jacket have prevented them from falling overboard? No. Would it have kept them above water while their boat sailed away from them?

Some make the analogy between seatbelts or motorcycle helmets. Point taken — motorcycle helmets have long been a contentious issue among bikers — but as the survivor of a nasty car-meets-bicycle accident who survived thanks to a helmet, I may praise their efficacy but would not necessarily support a law requiring their use. There is a libertarian philosophy which says every man for himself and life is full of risks. I don’t need the government telling me how to protect myself unless the lack of that protection causes a public inconvenience or cost.

I wrote my state representative, David Viera, and expressed my opposition to the House Bill 646. He replied and said he opposed it as well.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

5 thoughts on “Mandatory Life Preservers”

  1. As one who’s done “the big swim”, I have to admit that I’m still opposed to mandatory life preservers. Wearing a life preserver wouldn’t have made me one bit safer.

    Believe me, if we’re in dangerous conditions, I’ll probably have a preserver on, and you should too. But on a flat calm day as I sit founder fishing? Not likely, law or no law. There will always be one readily available though…

    A MUCH better rule would be mandatory power squadron classes.

    1. I thought of you when I wrote the post — and your big swim a few years ago. I completely agree- lifejackets go on when they need to go on and the judgment to decide when is up to an educated mariner, not the state.

  2. I second Mark’s suggestion regarding the power squadron classes. When Sharon and I moved here and bought our little Edgewater we took the Mass. Environmental Police boating class and then the Power Squadron class. It was time well spent. Unfortunately, we often see boaters who have, quite clearly, not taken either class. Great to have you posting again.

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