Results of a Long-term Research Study Resulted in New Regulations on Life Jacket Wearing

April 3rd, 2014 | Story


The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) is charged with promoting recreational boating safety, a role it shares with other enforcement bodies, such as state wildlife agents and harbor patrols, and industry groups interested in promoting safe boating. The bulk of the Coast Guard’s program resources come from the Sports Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, which is funded by a marine fuel tax. The Coast Guard  distributes funds to individual states to support their boating safety programs but retains a portion for research and annual national education campaigns.

Most people who drown in boating accidents are not wearing life jackets. The USCG first selected JSI in 1998 to help determine if the annual marketing and educational campaigns promoting life jacket use were getting more boaters to wear life jackets.

Evaluating approaches

Since then, JSI has applied a statistically sound approach to this study and has found few long-term changes in life jacket wear rates despite new marketing campaigns each year. Two areas where progress has been made includes children under the age of 13 and adults involved in sailing (either day sailors or cabin sailboats). For the bulk of adult boaters the wear rate hovers around 9 percent, however, for the most popular type of boat (speedboats) the rates have remained essentially steady at around 4 percent. Over the years, JSI’s methods have been shown to be reliable, and consequently, debates on how to change boater behavior have intensified.

Starting in 2006 a multi-strategy, intensive promotional and educational campaign was tested in the Delta region of the Central Valley in California, an area that stretches from Sacramento to Stockton and west to the mountains bordering the San Francisco Bay area. JSI was selected to evaluate this campaign. Life jacket use went up from about 8.5 to 12 percent in the first year, then settled at 10.5 percent after the third year. One key finding was that wear rates increased when a key feature of the campaign (a boat that cruised the waterways encouraging boaters to wear their life jackets) was most active. Funding problems in California eventually cut back the number of weekend appearances of the campaign boat—and reduced the effectiveness of the campaign.

An opportunity to test another approach came in 2008. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (US ACE) decided to test whether mandatory wear regulations could change behavior and reduce drownings. Four lakes in northwestern Mississippi were chosen as test sites and JSI was again selected as the evaluator. There was intense publicity in the year prior to the rules change. After the change became effective, US ACE rangers continued to educate boaters about the rules and write warnings to violators.

JSI found that with mandatory regulations, adult life jacket wear rates increased from about 9 percent to over 70 percent during the summer season for the next three years. Managers of the lakes in Mississippi have retained the mandatory rules. In the five years since these rules have been in place, there have been two drownings. In the past, there were typically two or three drownings per year.

Conducting observational studies of life preserver use has informed U.S. Coast Guard policy.
Conducting observational studies of life preserver use has informed U.S. Coast Guard policy.
Impact on policy debates

JSI’s longitudinal study on the usual yearly promotional campaigns, along with the results of the side-by-side evaluations of mandatory rules versus intense promotional and educational campaigns, has yielded high-quality data and created evidence for a policy change.

In 2012, the National Boating Safety Advisory Council (NBSAC), which had been reluctant to recommend mandatory wear rules, adopted a recommendation to the Coast Guard that life jacket use be mandatory on smaller boats (under 18 feet) and all paddle boats and personal watercraft (e.g., jet skis). Two sources of information were critical to this resolution: the drowning rates were much higher in smaller boats, and JSI’s research showing the relative effectiveness of an intense promotional campaign alone compared to mandatory regulations supported by education and promotion. The NBSAC recognized that to make a dramatic change in drowning rates for at least some boats—those that are smaller and those that tip easily—mandatory regulations can be effective.

JSI’s evaluation methods adapted to the client’s needs, withstood challenges, and are being used to promote policy change and save lives.

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