NOTE: Statistics reflect most current data available.
The United States Coast Guard reports that over 80 percent of all boating-related deaths could be prevented if boaters wore life jackets (also known as life preservers or personal flotation devices (PFDs). In 2008, 3,330 people were injured in boating incidents, and more than 700 died (72% by drowning). Of those who drowned, 9 out of 10 were not wearing life jackets.
The majority of fatalities occur among people who have the ability to swim. Most boating incidents involve a small craft capsizing or someone simply falling out and becoming another victim of sudden drowning syndrome, which occurs during abrupt entry into water with a temperature lower than 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The shock of cold water causes victims to inhale water into their lungs. Without a life jacket, even an exceptionally strong swimmer can drown in seconds.
Choosing the Right Life Jacket
A life jacket is designed to keep a person's head above water and in a proper breathing position. However, for the life jacket to work as intended, it is critical that it be properly fitted and used as instructed by the manufacturer. Life jacket sizes are based on weight ranges and chest sizes.
Life Jackets for Children
Everyone, especially children, should always wear a life jacket whenever on water. (See below for Minnesota's law requiring children under age 10 to wear a life jacket.) Children have special needs, so keep the following in mind when choosing a life jacket for a child.
Some manufacturers specify a chest size. Thus, children should be measured around the chest and under the arms before being fitted for a PFD.
When a child is being fitted for a PFD, make sure it is fastened snugly. When lifted at the shoulders, the jacket should not give more than 3 inches. If it does, IT IS TOO BIG.
Some infants are too small for any life jacket, even though the label may say 0-30 lbs. In general, babies under 6 months or 16 pounds are too small for a life jacket to be effective due to the size of their head in relationship to their body mass. If your infant is newborn, please consider waiting until the baby is a little older before taking them boating.
If a PFD has crotch straps, make sure they are always used because they are designed to keep the device correctly in place.
Consider using collared life jackets for children who fear the water.
Select life jackets with bright colors for high visibility.
Parents should help children test life jackets in shallow water to assist them in getting used to wearing a life jacket in the water.
Life jackets are not supervisors or babysitters. Even if they are wearing a PFD, children should never be left alone near water.
Children learn best by example. This means parents should ALWAYS wear PFDs.
Selecting an Adult's PFD
The following guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources describe the five types of life preservers approved for use on recreational boats.
Type I: Offshore Life Jacket
This is a vest or yoke type PFD generally used on commercial boats and is designed for survival in rough, open water. It will usually turn an unconscious person face-up and is the best PFD for remote areas where it may take quite some time for rescue help to arrive.
Type II: Near-Shore Buoyant Vest
This is a classic style PFD which usually looks like a horse collar and is worn like a bib. Designed for calm inland water, and less bulky than Type I, it also has the ability to turn over an unconscious person, but not as effectively as the Type I under similar conditions.
Type III: Flotation Aid
These PFDs are usually foam filled, considered the most comfortable, and provide the best protection against hypothermia. They come in several colors and styles, including full-sleeved jackets. Type III devices are for use in calm water where rescuers can arrive quickly. They will generally not turn an unconscious person over.
Type IV: Throwable Devices
These include PFDs such as buoyant cushions, ring buoys or horseshoe buoys designed to be thrown to a victim in the water. Although it is important to keep these devices readily available for emergencies, they are not intended to be worn and must be accompanied by a wearable PFD. They should not be used for small children, non-swimmers and unconscious victims.
Type V: Special Use Devices
These are designed and approved for restricted uses such as a sailboarding harness, duck hunting flotation coveralls, or a whitewater rafting vest. This type of flotation device is restricted to the particular activity for which it was designed. The label will indicate any restrictions that apply to the particular device. Some Type Vs such as the “Hybrid PFD” must be worn to be counted in the total number of PFDs on board your boat.
Inflatable Life Jackets
The inflatable PFD has the advantage of being very comfortable and easy to wear. Once inflated, the flotation is equal to or greater than traditional life jackets. Inflatables do have a couple of disadvantages. They must be inflated to provide flotation, they may not provide as much protection from cold water as some traditional foam life vests, they require regular maintenance and rearming after use to ensure that they will float you, and some inflatable life vests are required to be worn in order to be counted as one of your U.S. Coast Guard approved wearable flotation devices. Inflatables are not intended for use on personal watercraft, by children, or while water skiing or similar sports. Before purchasing, make sure that “U.S. Coast Guard Approved” is visible somewhere on the package or on the device itself.
Important to Note
Keep in mind the following regarding the selection, use and maintenance of Personal Flotation Devices:
Any PFD must be the appropriate size for the person who will wear it.
"Readily Accessible" means that a PFD will be easy to reach in the case of an emergency. PFDs locked in lockers, under anchors, or stored in plastic bags are not considered accessible.
"Immediately Available" means that throwable devices must be able to be easily reached in case of emergency.
All life jackets must be in serviceable condition. The device must be free of punctures or tears. The PFD cannot be waterlogged (especially on kapok devices) and all straps have to be present and in good shape.
All PFDs must have an approved Coast Guard label attached or printed on them.
A Coast Guard approved life jacket must be worn by any person being towed on water skis or other device, or carried in the towing watercraft.
A Type V PFD which has been Coast Guard approved may be substituted for another flotation device if the Type V model meets the same requirements and it is so stated on the device (ie. "Equivalent to a USCG approved Type III device").
On all boats (including kayaks, canoes and duckboats), regardless of size, there must be readily accessible Coast Guard approved Type I, II or III wearable PFD for each person on board. In addition, Type IV throwable devices, such as buoyant cushions, are no longer acceptable as primary life saving devices.
On boats 16 feet or longer, with the exception of kayaks and canoes, there must also be at least one Coast Guard approved Type IV throwable device, such as a ring buoy or buoyant cushion.
Except for personal watercraft, such as jet skis and water scooters, and for children under age 10, the law does not state that life jackets must be worn, only that they are readily accessible. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources highly recommends that PFDs be worn at all times by everyone on board any boat.
Children under age 10 are required to wear a life jacket while boating on Minnesota waters (not when the boat is tied up at a dock or permanent mooring).
Exemptions from wearing a life jacket: 1) When in an enclosed cabin or below the top deck on a watercraft. 2) When on an anchored boat that is a platform for swimming or diving. 3) When aboard a charter (passenger) craft with a licensed captain.
For more information, contact:
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Boat & Water Safety Section
500 Lafayette Road
St. Paul, MN 55155-4046
United States Coast Guard Office of Boating Safety
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources