Personal Flotation Devices (PFD): National Monitoring of Life Jacket Use while Boating

Dates: 2016-2017

Geographic Scope: Nationwide

Client(s): US Coast Guard

Service: Applied Research & Evaluation

Technical Expertise: Population Health, State and Local Public Health


One of the missions of the U.S. Coast Guard is to promote recreational boating safety, and one particularly beneficial behavior would be for each boater to wear a life jacket (or PFD – personal floatation device) while on the water. It is important for the U.S. Coast Guard to monitor life jacket wear rates across the nation so boater trends can be identified; efforts to promote PFD use can be evaluated; and groups that are particularly at risk can be identified for targeted campaigns.

Through the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, the U.S. Coast Guard has awarded grants to JSI each year since 1998 to conduct a national wear-rate observational study in a sample of 30 states. Each summer more than 13,000 boats are observed at 124 sites in these 30 states. The annual report published here presents wear data by type and size of boat, other boat characteristics, weather and other site characteristics and age and gender of boaters.

Life jacket wear rates are highest for boaters who use personal watercraft ("jet skis"), who are children, and who operate smaller boats such as canoes and kayaks. There is a trend of increasing use of PFDs among children due to changes in mandatory regulations over this time period. Increasingly states now mandate wear for boaters under age 13. There is also a trend of increasing PFD use among boaters on smaller sailboats. This trend has been attributed to a very active nationwide effort to encourage training that includes an emphasis on PFD use for safety.

In addition to monitoring national PFD trends, the U.S. Coast Guard selected JSI to conduct evaluations of two experimental programs to increase life jacket use. In 2007, JSI evaluated the results of an intensive campaign in California promoting voluntary use of life jackets. This program was shown to increase PFD wear, particularly among those engaged in fishing activities. However, success was shown to be highly dependent on the intensity of marketing and other resources devoted to the campaign. From 2008 to 2012, JSI evaluated the results of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pilot mandatory regulation test program at four lakes in Mississippi and one lake near Fresno, California. This effort was shown to increase life jacket use from about 10% to 70% among all types of adult boaters on these lakes. The differential success of these two initiatives has led the National Safe Boating Advisory Council to recommend the U.S. Coast Guard to move forward to implement mandatory life jacket wear regulations for all manually powered boats as well as smaller power boats.

In 2014 JSI began a partnership with the USCG Auxiliary to train Auxiliary members to conduct life jacket data observations. Over the past three years they have expanded to collecting data in 10 of the 30 JSI observation states.