Coming to a Lake Near You?

Life Jacket Requirements

By Ryck Lydecker

photo of two men fishing while wearing life jackets

Life jackets are essential equipment; every boater knows that, and carries them aboard out of common sense as much as to comply with federal boating regulations. But now the nation’s largest manager of recreational waters wants all boaters — adults included — to not just carry life jackets on their boats but to wear them at all times, on at least a few of its lakes.

In a pilot study that has every indication of spreading to other water bodies under its jurisdiction, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now mandates that everyone aboard a motorized vessel of any size must wear a life jacket at all times when underway on California’s Pine Flat Lake. For boats under 16 feet, the rule applies to everyone aboard, at all times, and applies to non-motorized boats, like canoes and kayaks, as well. Everyone aboard a boat 16-feet and longer must wear a life jacket when under way, except when inside an enclosed cabin or under power from a trolling motor.

The Corps actually adopted the rules at Pine Flat Lake as an addition to a three-year study already underway that implemented similar regulations in the agency's Pittsburgh District, covering the Youghiogheny River and Shenango River Lakes in western Pennsylvania, as well as on five lakes within the Vicksburg District in Mississippi. While the word "study" implies a temporary ruling, the Corps says it's considering more permanent life jacket rules for much larger geographical areas in the future.

Unlike state agencies, or even the U.S. Coast Guard, the Corps of Engineers can make this kind of change without any public comment. The Pine Flat Lake regulation is in effect from April 1, 2011, until October 31, 2011, and specifies that boaters must wear only U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets. The rule carries a $175 fine for non-compliance and applies to all swimmers outside designated swimming areas.

The Pennsylvania rule, in place since 1990, and the Mississippi regulations, in force since 2009 when the study began, also applies to boats under 16-feet. The Coast Guard agreed to measure life jacket wear rates in the study areas but thus far, according to a Corps project summary, the results appear inconsistent. (The Coast Guard no longer monitors compliance in the Pittsburgh District.) The summary notes that the Corps study team plans to deliver its recommendations to the commander by “December 2011 or later.”

The Army Corps of Engineers manages some 450 lakes in 43 states with over 3,500 launching ramps, making it the country's largest provider of water-based recreation opportunities. In fact, the Corps has more boats than the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard, combined.

“Many experienced boaters have strong reservations about government mandates for adults to wear life jackets,” reports BoatU.S. Vice President of Government Affairs, Margaret Podlich. She noted that with nearly 372 million visits a year at the Corps lakes, beaches, and other areas, boating-related fatalities nationwide average 32 deaths a year, “not including those who drowned after voluntarily leaving a boat to swim.”