(Personal Flotation Devices)
Revised by BoatUS editors in June 2012
Inflatable Life Jackets
Many years of extensive research and testing have earned the BoatU.S. Foundation a national reputation as a leader in PFD (Personal Flotation Device) safety. The "Foundation Findings" series of consumer tests has reported in depth on USCG-approved, inflatable, and children's PFDs. The information below is based on these reports, copies of which are free upon request from the BoatU.S. Foundation. In May 2011 the Foundation conducted a study of life jackets in general, including inflatables. This report is found at http://www.boatus.com/foundation/Findings/50/default.asp .
There's no such thing as the perfect life jacket, although the ideal PFD is one that you will wear. It should be comfortable, provide a secure fit, and offer maximum freedom of movement. All PFDs have advantages and disadvantages. You should consider the type of boating you do and your boating area, the temperature of the water, the probability of quick rescue, and whether or not you are going to wear the PFD every time you board your boat.
U.S. Coast Guard-Approved PFDs
A “USCG-Approved” label on a PFD doesn't mean "guaranteed to save your life." It means the PFD meets a minimum testing standard in calm water. It is exactly that, a minimum, and not a guarantee of the PFD's performance as a lifesaving device.
If you boat in calm, protected waters, a more comfortable, less buoyant Type II or Type III may suffice. Boaters in supervised activities like dinghy racing or those who water ski or day sail where there is a high probability of immediate rescue can also consider Type II or III PFDs. Type IIIs do not provide adequate flotation for many overboard situations, and it is dangerous for you to rely on them for lifesaving performance beyond their design capabilities.
In rough water, the more buoyancy, the better. Of all the Coast Guard-approved life jackets we tested, only the Type I, with 22 lbs. minimum buoyancy, was adequate for rough water. It is also the only one that will turn an unconscious wearer face up most of the time in any weather condition. A Type II or III (with only about 15 lbs. of buoyancy) isn’t likely to do that.
The inflatable PFDs are another comfortable way to meet the USCG requirements in the appropriate circumstances. Manual inflatable PFDs are classified as USCG Type IIIs, while Type Vs (24-35 lbs. of buoyancy) are automatic inflatable PFDs. Type Vs must be worn at all times to meet USCG guidelines. Check buoyancy rating before buying to ensure you are meeting USCG requirements. See “Inflatable Life Jackets” for further discussion of Inflatables.
If you have a big boat with plenty of storage and you are among the 80%+ of boaters who simply refuse to wear a life jacket, then buy a Type I and/or a Coast Guard approved inflatable vest. The Type I PFD is the most buoyant of the current Coast Guard-approved types and it will do more than other types to keep your head and mouth above water. If you boat in open water, where there's a chance of adverse wind and water conditions, and/or cold water, a Type I is the only Coast Guard approved PFD to consider. But a life jacket must be worn in order to work!
Many boaters compromise between the wearability of the Type III and the superior buoyancy of the Type I, opting instead for the least expensive Type II. Carrying Type IIs for everyone aboard meets the minimum Coast Guard requirement, but Type IIs do not have adequate buoyancy in many situations and are poor at keeping your head above water because they cannot be snugged up for a good fit. Remember, you get what you pay for.
PFDs and Kids
In 1993 the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that wearing of life jackets should be mandatory for children. Various states have already enacted such legislation. For children, a life jacket is the single most important piece of safety gear. Children are shaped differently than adults, and the performance of the different types we tested on children depended largely on the child's size and body shape, particularly with collar models. If you let children help choose their own PFDs, most kids will opt for one with a favorite cartoon character-this is fine if it encourages them to wear it. Choose a bright color like orange or yellow that's visible in the water from a distance. That goes for adults, too.
In the past 30 years changes in design and materials have made PFDs more wearable. And yet we have not improved on this 30-year old statistic: The number of boaters who die wearing no life jacket is still four out of five. On the positive side, statistics show the lowest fatality rate in boating related accidents in 30 years-down from 1,167 in 1963 to 836 in 1995. Continued boating safety education programs on the national, state, and local levels, along with the efforts of the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety will help bring safer boating to all regions.
NOTE:Changes in design and materials have made PFDs more wearable, but still boaters are not wearing these life saving devices. Statistics show a decrease in fatality rates of boaters drowning to a low of 517 in 2007. Out of the 517 drowned, 450 might have been saved if they had only been wearing a life jacket—a shocking 80%! Continued boating safety education programs on the national, state, and local levels, along with the efforts of the BoatU.S. Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water will help bring safer boating to all regions.
Learn more about the BoatUS Lifejacket Loaner Program.