By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes in Mississippi will continue to require wearing of life jackets for most boaters, swimmers and skiers after a three-year test of the policy proved to be a lifesaver.
In May 2009, the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard began a test at Arkabutla, Sardis, Enid and Grenada lakes to see if more stringent life jacket wear requirements would improve wear rates and decrease the number of water-related fatalities.
“Before the test, life jacket use rates were less than 10 percent but 70 percent for the three years after it began,” said Corps spokesman Kavanaugh Brea-zeale. “In the three years prior to the test, there were seven fatalities. In the past three years, we’ve had just three fatalities.”
Wayne Stogsdill, operations manager for the four lakes, said people’s approaches to mandatory life jacket use mirror those seen in the evolution of seat belt laws.
“The vast majority of people, whether they like it or not, are compliant. Some keep a life jacket handy, and if they see a ranger coming, they slip it on,” he said. “At first people don’t like it, but they adjust.”
Stogsdill added that life jacket designs have made drastic improvements in comfort in the past several years.
“The new kinds of jackets available are so much more comfortable than the traditional ‘horse collar’ kind,” he said. “Honestly, I didn’t always use one before this, but now I have an inflatable life jacket, and it just seems natural to put it on whenever I get on a boat.”
A Corps statement emphasized the lifesaving value of constant wear of Coast Guard- approved flotation devices.
“This program has clearly demonstrated that the life jacket policy has increased wear rates and has clearly saved lives. Due to its success, the program will continue as it is currently structured.”
Swimmers on Arkabutla, Sardis, Enid and Grenada must wear a Type I, II or III Coast Guard-approved life jacket whenever swimming outside of designated swimming areas.
All skiers must wear the same kinds of life jacket at all times while skiing or being pulled by a boat of any size. Additionally, anyone aboard a motorized boat less than 16 feet long or any non-motorized boat such as a sailboat, canoe, kayak, paddleboat or john boat, must wear an approved life jacket at all times.
In watercraft 16 to 26 feet long, occupants may take off their life jackets while at anchor or while using a trolling motor but must wear them whenever the vessel is propelled by its main engine.
Breazeale said it is unclear when the same life jacket mandate may be enforced on other Corps properties around the nation, including the Tenn-Tom Waterway, but Stogsdill is sold on the rule’s value.
“We know of three incidents during the test where people on our lakes would have died if they hadn’t been wearing life jackets,” he said. “They really do save lives.”