It goes by many different names: life jacket, life vest, life preserver, personal floatation device, or PFD. Regardless of the name, its purpose is to keep you alive until help arrives when you're involved in a boating accident. But it cannot work if it's not worn.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 651 people died in boating accidents in 2012. Though that's the lowest number of annual fatalities on record, it's 651 too many. Of those 651 deaths, 462 (71 percent) were by drowning. And of those 462 victims, 388 (84 percent) were not wearing a PFD. That makes each one of those deaths preventable and all the more tragic.
Perhaps examining these numbers on a smaller scale will make them more powerful. In Ohio, for example, 11 people died in boating accidents in 2012. None wore PFDs. Pennsylvania also reported 11 boating deaths in 2012. Only three of those victims wore PFDs. And in Wisconsin, only six of 23 boating accident victims wore PFDs.
"People tend to think of boating accidents in terms of collisions -- and that's the most common type of reportable boating accident in Pennsylvania," says Ryan Walt, Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission boating and watercraft safety manager. "But the accidents where we have fatalities are the ones where somebody falls overboard, or is swamped in a small boat and then ends up drowning. Those are precisely the accidents where a life jacket can make all the difference."
Death by drowning in a boating accident is an equal-opportunity killer. It takes men, women, and children of all ages. Watercraft involved include kayaks, canoes, inflatable rafts, pontoon boats, personal watercraft, and motorboats. Often alcohol is involved, especially on hot summer days. And when the water is chilly, cold-water shock and hypothermia can be factors.
The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission recently published its dispassionate annual review of boating fatalities in the May/June issue of Pennsylvania Angler and Boater (http://fishandboat.com/anglerboater/2013ab/vol82num3_mayjun/08recap.pdf).
The most shocking thing about these tragedies is how few victims wore PFDs at the time of the accident. It's worth repeating -- in 2012, 84 percent of drowning victims nationwide did not wear PFDs.