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

Dates: 1998-2014

Geographic Scope: Nationwide

Client(s): US Coast Guard

Service: Applied Research & Evaluation

Technical Expertise: 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 while on the water. It is important for the U.S. Coast Guard to monitor rates of wearing life jackets across the nation so that trends can be identified; efforts to promote life jacket use can be evaluated; and groups that are particularly at risk so they should be targeted for campaigns can be identified. Through the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, the U.S. Coast Guard has awarded a grant to JSI each year since 1998 through 2013 to conduct a national wear-rate observational study in a sample of 30 states. Each summer more than 13,000 boats were observed at 124 sites in these 30 states. Life jacket wear rates are highest for boaters who use personal watercraft ("jet skis"), who are children, and who use small 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 mandated use for children under age 13. Also during this time period various educational and promotional campaigns target parents and children to increase awareness or regulations and to encourage use. There is also a trend for increasing use among sail boaters particularly among those who use smaller sailboats. This trend has been attributed to a very active nationwide effort to encourage training for those who train and to ensure that those who provide training include wearing of life jackets as of great importance.

In addition to monitoring national life jacket trends, the U.S. Coast Guard selected JSI to conduct evaluations of two experimental programs to increase life jacket use. From 2006 to 2008, JSI evaluated the results of an intensive campaign in the Delta region of California, to promote voluntary use of life jackets. This program was shown to increase life jacket use particularly among those engaged in fishing activities, but was highly dependent of the intensity of resources devoted to the campaign. From 2008 to 2012, JSI was asked to evaluate 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 to 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. Learn more.


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