Life jacket law for children now in effect

Water Ways
Honolulu Star Bulletin 12/28/02)
By Ray Pendleton

At this gift-giving time of year, the U.S. Coast Guard is hoping every boat owner in Hawai`i gave their keiki a life jacket.

That's because, as of Dec. 23, it made it mandatory that all preteen children wear a properly fitting, CG-approved Personal Floatation Device (PFD) while they are aboard recreational vessels that are underway. The only exception to the rule is when a child is below deck or in an enclosed cabin.

This new rule will not overrule any similar state regulations, but because Hawai`i is one of 10 states that has not established statutes requiring the use of life jackets by children, boaters here must comply with it immediately.

In the past, the CG has only advised all boaters to wear life vests, even though they were required to have them available for everyone on board.

"Statistics show that life jackets save lives, but only when they are worn," said Captain Scott Evans, Chief of the CG's Boating Safety Office in Washington, D.C., in a recent press release.

"Children customarily wear protective gear when rollerblading, skateboarding and bicycling, and similar precautions are in order on the water," he pointed out. "The Life Jacket Rule was proposed to make sure there is a life jacket rule in all states."

According to Coast Guard statistics, between 1995 and 2001, 210 children under the age of 13 died while boating. Of these, 121 drowned — yet most of these deaths could have been prevented had the children been wearing properly fitting PFDs.

Naturally, the requirement for life jackets to be "properly fitting" will be of some concern to boat owners with growing children or parents of junior sailors. The PFD that fit your child last summer will surely be too small this spring.

Fortunately though, many marine hardware stores and PFD manufacturers are offering life vest replacement plans to minimize the on-going expense.

It's for the boat operators who invite friends with pre-teen children aboard where the situation becomes a larger problem. They must remember that not just any PFD will do.

Life jackets, like kids, come in many different sizes and floatation characteristics, ranging from infant, to child, to youth, to adult. Because an adult PFD won't fit a small body, it will no longer be acceptable to just match the boat's head count with the number of PFDs on board.

From now on, size counts and pre-teens must be wearing the appropriate size.

This may mean that those boat owners who periodically have unexpected guests will be forced to carry a larger life vest inventory than in the past.

Compliance with the new rule will surely be encouraged by the penalties that can be levied on boaters who are found in violation. Boat operators may be assessed up to a maximum of $1,100 for each violation, similar to the penalties for failing to have sufficient PFDs on board.

Maybe now is the time to take back that heavy sweater your keiki's auntie in Seattle gave him and exchange it for a properly fitting life jacket.

Using it is now the law and it could safe his life.

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