Life-jacket lottery: Most adults take their chances on the water, study finds

‘Uncomfortable’ vests, alcohol on board and ‘expert’ swimming ability all contribute to low use
Life jackets
Nearly three-quarters of boaters admitted they skipped life vests on the day they were surveyed, according to a study by scientists at the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

If you’re out on the water this Labor Day weekend, trying to bask in the last glow of summer, look around at the boaters bobbing beside you. Chances are, very few will be wearing life jackets, even though experts say the flotation devices can cut the risk of drowning by 50 percent.

Nearly three-quarters of Seattle-area motor boaters admitted they skipped life vests on the day they were surveyed, according to a study by scientists at the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. And only one in 10 said they always use the devices when they go boating. 

“We wear seatbelts when we get into cars,” said Dr. Alex Quistberg, the post-doctoral fellow at the UW’s Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center who led the study. “But we don’t wear life jackets.”

Why do boaters forgo life jackets, particularly adults who aren’t required by law to wear them? The reasons are predictable -- and important, said Dr. Beth Mueller, an epidemiologist with the Fred Hutch Public Health Sciences Division who was the senior researcher for the study of 675 people during the 2008 boating season. It was published recently in the journal Injury Prevention.

“We thought that people with children on board would be more likely to report wearing life jackets, and we were right,” she said. “We also thought that people who reported drinking alcohol while boating were less likely to report using life jackets, and that’s what we observed.”

People who never or rarely used life jackets -- less than 50 percent of the time – were indeed more likely to drink alcohol on board and also to regard themselves as good or even “expert” swimmers and to complain that life jackets were bulky or uncomfortable, the researchers found.

Those who donned the life vests more than 50 percent of the time were more likely to wear new inflatable models that users say are more streamlined and comfortable. They were also more likely to have children on board or to have taken a boating safety class, the study found.

The research is important because of the popularity of the pastime, Mueller said. There were about 12 million vessels registered in the U.S. in 2012 and more than 80 million recreational boaters, according to U.S. Coast Guard figures.

But last year, more than 4,000 recreational boating accidents in the U.S. led to 560 deaths, the agency found. In cases where the cause of death was known, 84 percent of drowning victims were not wearing life jackets. Life jackets cut the risk of drowning by 50 percent, USGC experts say.

That is a stunning statistic to those in the boating world, said Rachel Johnson, executive director of the National Safe Boating Council in Manassas, Virginia.

“It’s just so sad,” said Johnson, who often talks to family members of victims. “You just really want people to go out and have fun while boating. We don’t want to lose anyone because they chose not to wear a life jacket.”

The new study was conducted at nine public boat ramps in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties from Aug. 1 to Nov. 15, 2008, said Quistberg, who pursued the research as part of a master’s thesis. About a dozen researchers, including Quistberg, approached people using motor boats less than 26 feet long – the size most frequently associated with fatalities. Seattle Children’s Hospital and the departments of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Washington also contributed.

Most boaters were happy to participate, Quistberg said. And many weren’t shy about skipping life jackets or engaging in other risky behavior.

“There were people that we interviewed with a beer in their hand – and no life jacket,” he said.

Certain groups of people do wear life jackets – but only because they have to. State laws vary, but federal rules require that children younger than 13 on moving boats wear life jackets that fit. In some states, including Washington, people using kayaks, canoes, inner tubes and other personal watercraft must wear life vests.

For adults, the law requires only that boats be equipped with enough life jackets for everyone on board. If they’re stored in a drawer beneath the seat, that counts.

Getting people to wear life jackets voluntarily has been a longstanding problem, said Wade Alonzo, boating program manager for the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission.

“We have not been successful in moving the needle on life jacket wear,” he said.

Mandating that everyone wear life jackets would ensure use, but also spark conflicts over personal rights and freedom, a fight that most boating agencies want to avoid.

“We really don’t want to be the sort of group that wants to mandate anything,” said Johnson, of the NSBC. “We want boaters to take that responsibility on themselves.”

One solution might be wider use of the newer inflatable-style life jackets. Worn like suspenders or a belt, the vests inflate automatically when immersed in water, or can be inflated manually. A third of the high-use boaters in the study said they wore inflatable vests.

“We suspect people think they’re more comfortable, less bulky and possibly look more ‘cool’ than the standard vests,” Mueller said.

They’re also more expensive, $80 to $100 compare with $20 to $50 for standard life vests.

Understanding why adults don’t wear life vests may be the first step to encouraging future use, said Mueller, noting that she and other PHS faculty often work with UW doctoral students like Quistberg on epidemiology projects. The Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center is among the best in the nation, she added.

“This one was of particular interest to me because my family has enjoyed boating for many years and it breaks my heart when I hear about preventable boating deaths because people did not use a life jacket.”

JoNel Aleccia is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. From 2008 to 2014, she was a national health reporter for NBC News and Prior to that she was a reporter, editor and columnist for more than two decades at newspapers in the Northwest. Reach her at

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