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It's time to require boaters in Minnesota to wear life jackets

“Nine times out of 10, boaters who drown are men, 20 to 60 years old, with one thing in common — they aren't wearing a life jacket.”

The following editorial appeared in the Rochester Post-Bulletin.

Joe Mauer and the Minnesota Twins aren't having a good year, but Mauer is doing some solid work off the field — including a public service announcement in which he points out this sad fact:

“Nine times out of 10, boaters who drown are men, 20 to 60 years old, with one thing in common — they aren't wearing a life jacket.”

That statement proved true again Aug. 27 when a canoe carrying two men capsized on Silver Creek Reservoir east of Rochester. One man made it to shore, but the other drowned in the reservoir's murky waters.

According to the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office, the men had brought life jackets but weren't wearing them when the canoe capsized. That means they had met the state's legal requirement, which mandates the wearing of a life jacket for boaters younger than 10, while those 10 and older must simply have a life jacket "readily accessible."

Unfortunately, a life jacket that's lying in the bottom of a canoe, duck boat or speedboat is of little use when the canoe capsizes or when a passenger falls overboard and doesn't resurface. From 2011-15, 74 boaters drowned in Minnesota, and nearly every one of those tragedies would have been prevented had the victim been wearing a life jacket.

It's time to change Minnesota's law.

The simplest, easiest-to-enforce solution would be to mandate life jacket use for all boaters at all times, with the possible exception of passengers on commercial vessels, such as riverboats or large fishing charters.

Yes, there would be howls of protest from people who say personal flotation devices are bulky, hot and uncomfortable, but this isn't 1960, when your options were small orange horse collars or large orange horse collars. The market today is filled with a variety of PFDs designed with comfort in mind, including some the size of a belt that inflate automatically when submerged.

We'd argue the protests against mandatory life jacket use would fade pretty quickly, which is exactly what happened when Minnesota first mandated seat belt usage in 1986. At that time, the compliance rate was about 20 percent, but today, 94 percent of front-seat occupants are wearing seat belts in Minnesota. Seat-belt use has become an established habit, to the point most of us buckle up reflexively, without even thinking about it.

The same thing could happen on the water with PFDs.

But if the Legislature is unwilling to take such a dramatic step — and we suspect the resort industry "Up North" might lobby against an all-encompassing PFD mandate — there are some smaller steps that could make a big difference. Requiring life jacket use for anyone in a canoe kayak, as well as boats under 16 feet, would be a good start. Another possibility would be to mandate PFD use at all times except when a boat is resting at anchor. At the very least, all boaters should be required to wear lifejackets if they are on the water after dark.

We urge our local legislators on both sides of the aisle to take up this fight. As Joe Mauer rightly puts it, "At the end of the day, what really matters is making it home safe."

Republished with permission.

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If you're interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

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Comments (5)

Criminalizing bad decisions isn't the solution.

I can see increasing education and outreach, but using the force of law to mandate "safety" has it's limits. While drownings are tragic, for every person that drowns in a boating accident tens or even hundreds of thousands manage to boat without drowning every year. Life can be a risky affair and criminalizing every unsafe thing or behavior is not only unrealistic, but contrary to the notion of a free society. Sometimes laws designed to insure personal safety just bring us into needless conflict with our government. I don't want law enforcement tied up writing LV citations while drunk boaters fly by for instance. Swimmers drown, are we to require that all swimmers wear life vests?

Protect us from ourselves...

I am looking forward to the next article on protecting us from ourselves.

Could it be on banning oversized sodas?

How about when you're back trolling

for walleyes going 2 mph? How about pontoons where you are going 5 mph? A one size fits all law never works for all!!

Other than boaters

In 2014 Minnesota had 14 boating fatalities and 29 non-boat drownings including swimmer, bathers, anglers, and people who fell through ice. In 2015 the numbers were 18 boating fatalities and 35 non-boat drownings. Seems like there's some lower-hanging fruit than forcing every boater wear a PFD.

Everyone Wear Life Jackets?

A recent MinnPost article gave a more complete picture of drownings, including data showing a steady decline in drownings, both boat related and non-boat, and showing non-boat related drownings far exceed boat related drownings. https://www.minnpost.com/health/2016/06/how-often-do-people-drown-minnesota

Obviously, these deaths could be reduced substantially if everyone wore life jackets all the time. Is that the solution? I think not.

Recreation on the water inherently involves risks, the risks are well-known, and the risk is accepted by the person who suffers the harm. At the same time recreational use of water of all types is highly beneficial, both for health and numerous other purposes. This is one area where protecting a person from the person's own bad choices is over-kill (pun intended), as deaths from many other causes far exceed boat-related water deaths, and efforts to reduce those deaths would result in many more lives saved. One example is death from falling, which in the single year of 2010 numbered about 700, 10 times the number of boat-related drowning deaths over the five year 2011-2015 period (Google "mn death rate from falling").

My wife and I live on a lake, we do so to use the water for many water-related purposes, and a requirement to use life jackets, including life jackets when on our boat, would "kill" one of the primary reasons we choose to live on and use the lake. We use our boat, often alone; we swim, often alone; and we share the sense of total freedom granted us by Nature as we enjoy the beauty of water enveloping our bodies. Leave us alone from a life jacket requirement.