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Memorial Day weekend signals the start of the recreational boating season

Todays life jackets are easier to wear especially the suspender type on the far left
Todays life jackets are easier to wear especially the suspender type on the far left
by Nick Hromiak

With the Memorial Day weekend forthcoming, it’s a time when many boat owners take their crafts to area lakes and rivers for the first time after the long winter. It’s also a time when many boating injuries or deaths occur mainly because folks were not wearing life jackets or personal floatation devices.

In 2013 the U.S. Coast Guard tallied 4,062 accidents involving 560 deaths, 2,620 injuries and approximately $39 billion dollars in damage to property because of recreational boating accidents in U.S. waters. These numbers breaks down as 4.7 deaths per 100,000 registered boaters.

Of these figures, 77 percent of fatal boating accident victims drowned and 84 percent were not wearing a life jacket.
In Pennsylvania, 17 boaters died in 2013 as a result of recreational boating accidents and only two of them were not wearing a life jacket at the time of the accident says the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission.

The Coast Guard reports that where boating instruction was known, 20 percent of deaths occurred on boats where the operator had received or taken a boating safety course. Only 13 percent of deaths occurred on vessels where the operator had received boating safety instruction from a course provider offering a course meeting U.S. Coast Guard national standards.

Interestingly, eight of every ten boaters who drowned were using vessels less than 21 feet in length.

The causes for these deaths or injuries vary. Operator inattention, improper lookout (especially when pulling water skiers), excessive speed and machinery failures rank as the top five primary factors in accidents says the USCG.
The USCG adds that alcohol use is the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents; where the primary cause was known and was listed in 16 percent of fatalities. And alarmingly, 22 children under age 13 lost their lives while boating in 2013. Eight of those children died from drowning.

Additionally, the USCG reports that the most common types of vessels that were involved in accidents were open motorboats (46 percent), personal watercraft (18 percent) and cabin motorboats (17 percent).

According to Ryan Walt, PFBC boating and watercraft safety manager, “People tend to think of boating accidents in terms of collisions, and that is the most common type of reportable boating accident in Pennsylvania. But the accidents we have with fatalities are the ones where someone falls overboard or is swamped in a small boat and then ends up drowning. Those are the accidents where a life jacket can make all the difference.”

Although all the details have not been released, a kayaker drowned Wednesday after his craft capsized in the Lehigh River near the falls in the Glendon area. It’s unknown whether he was wearing a life jacket.

Boaters should keep in mind and adhere to these PF&BC regulations:

* Boats must have a USCG approved wearable (Type I, II, III or V) life jacket on board for each person.

* Children 12 years of age and younger must wear their life jackets while underway on any boat 20 feet or less in length and on all canoes and kayaks.

* The regulation requiring mandatory life jacket use during cold weather months beginning Nov. 1. At that time boaters must wear a life jacket on boats less than 16 feet in length and or on ay canoe or kayak during cold weather months that ends on April 30.

Compared to the old orange colored “Mae West” life jackets of yesteryear, newer life jackets have been made more comfortable and easier to put on and take off. The suspenders type are especially convenient but are not suitable for children in that a tab must be pulled to inflate them. In a moment of falling overboard, a child may be too scared and traumatized to pull it.

As such, there’s no reason for anyone to not wear a PFD.