BoatUS Foundation For Boating Safety & Clean Water


The Life Jacket Test

By Chris Edmonston
Published: June/July 2011

Life jacket use, or more accurately, non-use, is arguably the number-one safety topic for federal and state boating agencies. The U.S. Coast Guard's National Boating Safety Advisory Council is pushing toward requirements for adults to wear life jackets while on certain size boats or under certain conditions (See "Time To Breathe New Life Into Life Jackets?").

Photo of a life jacket test with subject floating

When asked why they don't wear life jackets, two of the biggest factors boaters mention are the cost and lack of comfort of current USCG-approved life jackets. To its credit, the National Boating Safety Advisory Council has recognized these factors as being impediments to life jacket wear in their latest strategic plan (available at The Council recommends a wider array of life jackets be approved, and also recommends the adoption of the International Standards Organization's (ISO) level 50 devices, a standard used in Europe. These are characterized as "buoyancy aids" by the ISO, and don't have the flotation necessary to be USCG-approved under the current standards. Yet you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference among many of these devices and the jackets that are Coast Guard approved.

The BoatUS Foundation conducted tests to find out the differences, if any, between USCG-approved jackets and jackets that meet the ISO standards, as well as a few jackets that weren't approved by anyone. We used traditional Coast Guard Type I, II, and III jackets as controls, and then examined a number of different styles of jackets, including: vest- or suspender-style inflatable jackets, jackets designed for paddling, fishing, sailing, watersports, and even jackets that look more like regular clothing. For complete methods and test results, go to

Photo of a life jacket test submerging the jacket underwater

Though many models were not made to meet USCG standards, we incorporated many of the tests used by Underwriters Laboratories, which tests life jackets for the Coast Guard. We tested for freeboard and face angle in the water. We looked to see if jackets would roll people face-up. We had testers jump in the water to see if the jackets would come off, and then looked at how hard it was for them to swim. We looked at comfort both in and out of the water, and ease of putting the jacket on while out of the water. Testing was conducted in a pool, so no rough-water performance assessments were made. In order to minimize any potential bias, test subjects were not told which jackets were USCG approved. Some of the jackets tested are not sold in the U.S.

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