For most people planning at day on the water, food, drinks and fun are probably at the top of the list.  Lifejackets are most likely an afterthought.  They can be bulky, hot, and cumbersome, but they are one of the most important things to remember when heading out to the lake or river.

Just like with driving a car, boating safety isn’t something to take for granted. Conditions on the water can change quickly and turn what may have started as a routine and peaceful outing into a hazardous and difficult one. Just as you wouldn’t expect to be able to fasten your seatbelt as an accident occurs while in a car, you shouldn’t think that there will be time to grab a lifejacket as trouble strikes.

A report published by the U.S. Coast Guard states that 84 percent of drowning victims in boating accidents were not wearing a life jacket (also known as a personal flotation device). The average number of boaters wearing life jackets in 2015, according to the Coast Guard, was only 23.4 percent. For those operating personal watercraft, such as jet skis, the average number wearing life jackets dropped to 11.2 percent. Far too many people are risking their lives by not wearing a life jacket, when this simple safety device could help keep them safe.

People are doing a better job making sure that children age 17 and younger wear life jackets, but the rate is still far too low. Only about 67.7 percent of children were reported as wearing life jackets while boating in 2015, a decrease of 2.2 percent from the previous year – and down from 70.7 percent in 2011, according to Coast Guard statistics.

For those age 18-64, the life jacket wearing rate was only 11.1 percent, and for ages 65 and older it was 12.3 percent.

Other eye-opening Coast Guard information indicates that nine out of 10 drownings occur within a few feet of safety and often involve boats less than 20 feet long. In many cases, drowning victims had a life jacket available to them, but chose not to wear it. Accidents usually occur quickly and without warning, meaning people do not have time to prepare and put a life jacket on once a problem strikes. If they had already been wearing the life jacket, they would have been much better prepared to face disaster – and much more likely to survive a boating accident.

A note from the Personal Floatation Device Manufacturer’s Association (PFDMA) notes that “having life jackets aboard does not save lives – wearing them does.”

Texas state law requires children age 13 and younger to wear a life jacket at all times while a boat less than 26 feet long is underway. But this is a good guideline for anyone on a boat, and when adults wear life jackets, not only does it help keep them safe, it also sets a good example for children.

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Another requirement is that all vessels under 16 feet – including canoes and kayaks – must be equipped with a Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person onboard. Vessels 16 feet and longer are required to be equipped with a throwable life preserver as well as a wearable life jacket for everyone aboard. Inflatable life jackets are not approved for use on personal watercraft, for water skiing or for other activities involving speed, according to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Everyone aboard a personal watercraft, regardless of age, must wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket.

In addition to being Coast Guard approved, the Texas Handbook of Boating Laws and Responsibilities states that all life jackets must be in good and serviceable condition, readily accessible and of the right size for the intended wearer

The fine for not having enough life jackets aboard a boat or for failing to require children age 13 and under to wear a life jacket is at the discretion of the judge presiding over each case. Life jacket violations are the most frequent water safety citations issued by Texas game wardens, according to a 2016 press release from TPWD.

“So many people who drowned would be alive today if they had only worn a life jacket,” said TPWD Boater Education Manager Tim Spice in the press release. “There’s no excuse for not wearing one.”

One of the things many people don’t realize is the variety of life jackets available, but when you are purchasing them, be sure to make sure they are labeled as Coast Guard approved.

The PFDMA has a checklist with other important details:

  • Have you selected the right type of life jacket for the activity you have planned?
  • Is the life jacket the right size according to the label, and does it fit correctly?
  • Trial test the jacket in shallow water to make sure it works properly.
  • Does your life jacket keep your chin above water and allow you to breathe properly?
  • If you have an inflatable life jacket, check to make sure the inflator works, and make sure you check it for leaks at least every two months.
  • Boat operators should check each of their passengers’ life jackets to make sure it is in good working condition.

More information on life jackets can be found here.