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Feedback on Mandatory PFD Editorial

In our last newsletter, we included an editorial by Don Mueggenborg regarding the mandatory use of PFDs. The article received the highest “click” rating of all articles in the newsletter, an indication of its interest to many of you. We also received a few comments or rebuttals from readers, and would like to share these with the rest of the TIP audience. Thanks to the authors for sharing their thoughts with us.

One more thing to add to your list.  The situation you first described (90 degrees on a humid day) would be a time when wearing the PFD could lead to hyperthermia and/or dehydration.

Good luck with this.  The state has a way of missing out on common sense solutions.  I think of this when I am driving in the safest vehicle ever made (air bags deploying in all directions of impact, shoulder harnesses, collapsible frame, safety glass, autobraking, etc.) and a motorcycle goes by, the driver not helmeted, wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops.  He is fully in compliance with the law, yet, if I don’t have my seatbelt fastened, I am at risk of getting a $75 ticket.  Go figure.

Steve Thomas

I would like to respond to Don Mueggenborg’s editorial regarding mandatory PFD’s that ran in a recent issue of The Illinois Paddler. In it, Mr. Mueggenborg voices his opposition to a proposed Coast Guard requirement mandating that PFD’s be worn at all times by all boaters. He supports his position with several arguments. While I understand – and in some cases agree with – his arguments, I disagree with his conclusion.

Mr. Mueggenborg’s arguments seem more applicable to skilled, experienced paddlers than to the entire spectrum of paddlers. Many of his points are perfectly valid for skilled paddlers, but far less so for the kind of unskilled paddlers that we frequently see ricocheting from bank to bank with no PFD but plenty of beer. Since there cannot be separate sets of rules for the different types of paddlers, any rule must, of necessity, be one-size-fits-all. Unfortunately, it must also take into account the least common denominator: in this case, all paddlers, regardless of skill level.

I understand his argument that when paddling in six inches of water, a PFD would be of limited value. In such a river, however, there is probably no greater hazard than a strainer, and a strainer that has been there for a long period of time is likely to have scoured out the river bed beneath it. That six inch depth suddenly becomes six feet or more. We are all aware that this can happen and (hopefully) have the reliable skills that we need to avoid it. Unskilled, inexperienced paddlers are at far greater risk. In the situation when they most need flotation, they may not be wearing a PFD. This was a contributing factor to the last three deaths at the Glen Palmer Dam – a hydraulic rather than a strainer, but PFD’s would still certainly have increased their chance of survival.

Even absent the possibility of unforeseen deep spots, leaving to the judgement of the paddler the decision whether or not a PFD is advisable empowers inexperienced and sometimes impaired paddlers to make that decision. Water that is uniformly six inches deep is a pretty easy call. But some may think that two or three feet is shallow enough, not taking into account the current and having no concept of a foot entrapment. Some people will undoubtedly think that they can swim well enough to never need a PFD, not taking into account the possibility of a shoulder injury, a head injury or a medical episode that results in unconsciousness. Again, experienced paddlers usually take all of this into account, but since any rule must apply to all, it must take into account the needs and deficits of all paddlers. Leaving it to the discretion of the individual paddler pretty much guarantees that people with poor judgement will exempt themselves from wearing a PFD.

Mr. Mueggenborg cites the records of the DesPlaines Marathon and the USCA. He states that there have been no incidents at any of their events. If that statistic is accurate, that is testament to their focus on safety and is not applicable to paddling in general. Further, while there may or may not have been any fatalities in these venues, I doubt that close calls or other such incidents are even reported. Finally, while the USCA does not require that PFD’s be worn at all times during events sanctioned by them, they do require that they be worn at all times if the event organizer deems it advisable. My suspicion is that most event organizers do require that PFD’s be worn, making this an argument in favor of mandatory PFD’s, rather than against it.

This same kind of debate raged in the 1970’s, when the Legislature debated mandating that seatbelts be worn in motor vehicles. Those who opposed the requirement argued that the Legislature would be infringing upon their personal freedom and pointed to the possibility – however remote – that a driver could be trapped by his seatbelt in a car that was burning or sinking in a pond. The Legislature enacted the law and highway deaths fell. With the paddling community being much smaller than the motoring public, we will see a much smaller fall, but it is hard to argue that no lives will be saved by requiring that PFD’s be worn while paddling. And like seatbelts, if you are not wearing it when you don’t need it, you won’t have time to put it on when you desperately do need it.

The decision that the Legislature made in the 1970’s and that the Coast Guard is making now is not designed around any particular segment of the population, it is designed to serve the public at large. Some will argue that paddlers have the right to decide whether or not to put themselves at risk, but their decision has far-reaching consequences for the public. If someone dies on the river, there are frequently survivors who will receive Social Security survivor benefits, Medicaid, etc. If the paddler doesn’t die but is deprived of oxygen for too long, he may be eligible for Social Security SSI, Medicaid and other benefits at great public expense for decades. These decisions are not entirely personal and should not be left entirely to the individual. The government has an obligation to balance the public interest against the rights of the individual. The Coast Guard currently has the unenviable job of looking for a reasonable balance, knowing that there will be some on both sides who feel that their rights have been trampled. That was true during the seatbelt debates, and will likely be true for any future similar debate.

In the end, it will not bother me if the Coast Guard requires PFD’s. I am never without mine, even in warm weather and shallow water. I also wear my seatbelt, regardless of how slowly I am driving. If, however, the Coast Guard decides in favor of some lesser requirement, I will accept their decision as having been made in the interest of public policy. I hope that others will do the same, and that it doesn’t descend into the histrionic rhetoric we saw during the WUS debate.

Steve LaPorte

This note is in response to Don Mueggenborg’s October 1 online Editorial regarding a potential regulation for mandatory PFD wear as it pertains to paddlers.

I have not heard of any such pending action from the USCG, so I suspect what was heard may be rumor.  If there are any references to a request for comment for a pending or proposed regulation, I’d be very interested in seeing it.

Even if such a move was in the works, it would not impact Illinois paddlers due to the Exemption of Preemption Regulation in the Code of Federal Regulations, which prohibits Federal Regulations from preempting State regulations for PFD carriage/wear as it relates to Canoes and kayaks:  https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/33/175.5

As well, even if the Exemption of Preemption did not exist, a USCG regulation would only apply to Federal waterways – places where motorized and commercial traffic would frequent.  These places would typically warrant the full time wear of PFD’s and would not typically fit the description presented of shallow inland water trails.  (These would most commonly be sole-state waters.)

Beyond the legalities involved, I would still disagree with the editorial.  PFD’s should be worn at all times by paddlers and in all situations.  The analogy is akin to using a seat belt in a car.  Not using a PFD in shallow water is like saying that one should not use a seat belt when driving in their driveway.  The chances of injury are low, but anything can happen, and the cost of the insurance is almost nothing.  If one becomes incapacitated walking down the street, one may end up laying on the ground until help arrives.  If one becomes incapacitated in water, even shallow water, drowning and hypothermia are real dangers.

Millions of people wear seat belts in their cars every day and don’t get in a crash.  They wear them for that one time – where the unlikely and uncommon event happens.  PFD’s serve the same purpose.

If a paddler finds their PFD cumbersome or uncomfortable, they are probably in the wrong one.  With today’s wide range of styles and inflatable options, there are many different options on the market that can be worn for a variety of paddling activities, all day, and in all weather conditions.  The changes in-progress to the PFD classifications, in the US, should also make this situation even better, as the market broadens and allows manufactures to sell PFD models in multiple countries: http://www.americancanoe.org/?page=PFD_Types

Best Regards,

Gary Markle

Chicago, IL

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