Scott Shalaway: Take the steps to make boating safe


It goes by many different names — life jacket, life vest, life preserver, personal flotation device, or PFD. Regardless the name, its purpose is to keep you alive until help arrives when you’re involved in a boating accident.
But it cannot work if it’s not worn.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 651 people died in boating accidents in 2012. Though that’s the lowest number of annual fatalities on record, it’s 651 too many. Of those 651 deaths, 462 (71%) were by drowning. And of those 462 victims, 388 (84%) were not wearing a PFD.
That makes each one of those deaths preventable and all the more tragic.

Boating accidents

Perhaps examining these numbers on a smaller scale will make them more powerful.
In Ohio, for example, 11 people died in boating accidents in 2012. None wore PFDs. Pennsylvania also reported 11 boating deaths in 2012. Only three of those victims wore PFDs.

And in Wisconsin only six of 23 boating accident victims wore PFDs.

“People tend to think of boating accidents in terms of collisions — and that’s the most common type of reportable boating accident in Pennsylvania,” says Ryan Walt, Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC) boating and watercraft safety manager. “But the accidents where we have fatalities are the ones where somebody falls overboard, or is swamped in a small boat and then ends up drowning. Those are precisely the accidents where a life jacket can make all the difference.”


Death by drowning in a boating accident is an equal opportunity killer. It takes men, women, and children of all ages. Watercraft involved include kayaks, canoes, inflatable rafts, pontoon boats, personal watercraft, and motorboats. Often alcohol is involved, especially on hot summer days. And when the water is chilly, cold water shock and hypothermia can be factors.

The PFBC recently published its dispassionate annual review of boating fatalities in the May/June issue of Pennsylvania Angler and Boater (

Why aren’t they worn?

The most shocking thing about these tragedies is how few victims wore PFDs at the time of the accident. It’s worth repeating — in 2012, 84 percent of drowning victims nationwide did not wear PFDs.

It makes sense that everyone in a boat should wear a life jacket. The message is proclaimed loudly and clearly on virtually all state and federal outdoor recreation web sites and on printed material provided from state agencies and boat dealers.
And yet the message is ignored. People keep dying in recreational boating accidents.


I suppose it’s that human tendency to believe that tragic accidents only happen to others. The sad truth, however, is that accidents can happen to anyone at anytime.

The Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of summer. As temperatures rise, boating activity will increase. Make boat safety a priority this year. Boating should be fun. No one should die while enjoying a day on the water. Always wear a PFD when boarding a boat of any kind.

The law

Denny Tubbs, PFBC Outreach and Education Coordinator for the Southwest Region, urges every boater and every passenger to wear a PFD.

“It’s the law for children under 12 years of age,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It’s just common sense that everyone should wear a PFD while aboard a boat of any type.”
“The biggest complaint about PFDs has always been that they’re uncomfortable, too hot, or just inconvenient,” Tubbs said. “With the latest advances in inflatable life jacket technology, these excuses disappear.”

Inflatable life jackets resemble a belt with an attached pair of suspenders. When the device contacts water, hydrostatic pressure causes a carbon dioxide cartridge to fire and inflate an air bladder, he explains.

Tubbs explains, “The primary purpose of any PFD is to keep your head above water, even if you’re unconscious. Often help arrives within minutes of an accident. Without a PFD, victims can slip under water and not be found for days or even weeks.”

Inflatable life jackets

Search “inflatable life jackets” online. They’re more expensive than traditional PFDs, but I’ll bet your life or your child’s life is worth it.


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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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