New Life Jacket Law Takes Effect

Law requires PFDs to be worn on small boats from Nov. 1 to May 1

New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Commissioner Carol Ash today reminded boaters that a new state law taking effect in November requires that all boaters on recreational watercraft less than 21 feet in length – including motorboats, canoes, kayaks, rowboats and sailboats – must wear a personal flotation device (PFD) from November 1 to May 1 on New York waters.

The measure, signed into law by Governor Paterson in August, was sought by OPRHP to address a troubling rash of fatalities involving off-season boaters on small boats who were not wearing PFDs. In recent years, roughly 25 percent of the state’s boating fatalities occurred in the off season. In New York State, there were 21 boating fatalities in 2008, of which five occurred in cold water conditions, including an October 19 Sullivan County incident in which three people died. In 2007, there were also 21 total fatalities, of which eight were in cold water conditions, including a May 4 Franklin County accident in which two people died.

“The new law will save lives by sending a strong message that boaters should always prepare for the unexpected,” Ash said. “Frigid water can quickly overcome even the strongest swimmers – and significantly reduce the chance that those not wearing a life jacket will survive. A life jacket, no matter what the season, is the single best way boaters can keep themselves safe on the water.

“Assemblyman Steven Englebright, who sponsored the law in the Assembly, said: “This measure will help to address the escalating trend of boating fatalities that occur off-season when water temperatures are cold. A person’s best chance of survival during cold water months is to wear a securely fastened personal safety device which allows the body to conserve energy, prevents submersion, and allows more time for rescue.

“Senator Antoine Thompson said, “Life jackets are a vital part of all recreational marine activities. They are especially valuable off-season when ice fishing or boating accidents in cold water can cause the body to go into shock and rapidly lose consciousness. This law is intent on protecting everyone’s safety, especially children.”

Al Johnson, the Northeast First Coast Guard District’s recreational boating specialist, said: “Tragically many boaters and paddlers greatly under estimate the debilitating shock of sudden cold water immersion. This law will be instrumental in being the incentive to at least wear a life jacket.”

John M. Johnson, Executive Director of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA), said: “We applaud the New York Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation for shepherding and ensuring the passage of this visionary piece of legislation. Life jackets are a key to survival in cold water accidents and this law will put that fact in the mind of every New York boater with the force of law.

“Officials noted immersion in cold water, considered less than 68 degrees Fahrenheit, can cause sudden cardiac arrest, a gasping reflex that causes inhalation of water, the loss of swimming ability and grip strength and eventually hypothermia and unconsciousness. These risks are compounded by the absence of other boaters on the water at this time of year, reducing the likelihood that others will come to the aid of a boater in distress.

It’s also important to note that the water temperature is often dissimilar to the air temperature. Warm, sunny days in the late fall may obscure the fact that lakes and rivers have quickly cooled due to shorter days and freezing nighttime temperatures.Under the law, each boat passenger must wear a securely fastened, United States Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device of the appropriate size while the boat is under way – that is, while the vessel is not at anchor, or made fast to the shore, or aground. Boaters are subject to the law while on any lakes, rivers, streams and waters within the state that are not privately owned. Violation of the law could result in a fine of $25 to $100. Commercial boats and racing crew shells of organized rowing teams are not subject to the law.

In addition to the new requirement, PFDs must be worn year-round by all children under 12 years of age on any boat less than 65 feet in length, unless within a fully enclosed cabin; by anyone towed, such as water-skiers or wake-boarders; and while on board a personal watercraft. Otherwise, a PFD must be available for every passenger on board every vessel, including no-motorized watercraft such as canoes, kayaks and rowboats.