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What Are the Barriers to Life Jacket Use?

Recreational boaters head under the Highway 24 bridge as they motor past Swansboro along the White Oak River.

Life preservers save lives, but many recreational boaters don’t wear them. Here’s why.

May 21st kicked off National Safe Boating Week, and as Memorial Day weekend now brings a huge influx of visitors to the coast, North Carolina Sea Grant reminds recreational boaters to embrace safety — including life jacket use.

The annual number of drownings that occur in the United States during recreational boating has changed little over the past decade. Approximately 3.56 people drown per 100,000 registered boats, even though the law requires all recreational boats to carry life jackets.

Research Need

Do you always wear your life jacket? Why or why not? Researchers wanted to understand the reasons why adults might not wear life jackets while recreational boating. The results can inform intervention strategies and boating safety campaigns.

What did they study?

Researchers in the state of Washington conducted a survey with 675 boaters one year during late summer and early fall at multiple boat ramps. Some boaters participated as they were leaving the dock after being out on the water. The researchers analyzed the data by separating the boaters into groups based on life jacket usage rates and compared usage to such factors as age, gender, weather, boating experience, type of vessel, and several other factors.

What did they find?

Scientists found several reasons associated with not wearing a life jacket, including discomfort with the life jacket, alcohol consumption, warm weather, and swimming experience in open water. The restriction or limited range of motion that typical life jackets provide was a prominent factor.

Study participants were more likely to use inflatable life vests, because boaters considered them more comfortable. Also, because the law requires children to wear life jackets, researchers observed that their parents were more likely to wear life jackets, perhaps in order to set a good example.

Scientists also found that boaters who attended a boating safety class were more likely to wear a life jacket.

What else did they find?

The researchers found that only 1 in 10 boaters in the study wore a life jacket during the entire recreational boating trip.


Information on Coast Guard approved life vests and other important questions about life vests

Information on boating safety and laws from N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission

Full study: Barriers to life jacket use among adult recreational boaters. Injury Prevention, 20 (4), 244.

Summary compiled by Anna Greene and Scott Baker.
Lead photo by Roger Winstead.

The text from Hook, Line & Science is available to reprint and republish, but only in its entirety and with this attribution: Hook, Line & Science, courtesy of Scott Baker and Sara Mirabilio, North Carolina Sea Grant.