Life Jacket Laws

Updated July 19, 2017

It's not just a moniker -- a life jacket can actually save your life when an afternoon of boating turns deadly. But what are the laws pertaining to their use? Federal regulations are quite simple, and the Coast Guard or police can and will enforce them if a boat is discovered in violation. This article will spell out what every boater should know, in order to stay on the right side of Coast Guard life jacket regulations, and will provide a link to a site where information is available on applicable state laws.

The Facts

Coast Guard regulations (which are federally mandated) require any vessel to carry one Coast Guard Approved Personal Flotation Device (PFD) for each passenger aboard, including the captain and crew. In addition, for boats over 16 feet, a throwable PFD (boat cushion or life ring) must be on board. Basically, if a boat has anyone in it, there must be a PFD available for each person. But the law does not stipulate the life jackets have to be worn. Children present a special case. In 2003 a federal law was passed requiring states to enforce the wearing of life jackets by all children under the age of 13. Some state laws also mandate PFD use by adults in certain circumstances, like Personal Watercraft operation or when water skiing. Violations carry fines of up to $1,100, according to Life jackets come in four types, plus inflatable ones.

Type I

This type is intended for rough open water usage, such as offshore passages. It will turn an unconscious wearer face up in most instances and has 9.98 Kilogram of buoyancy.

Type II

As the various life jacket types go, this one is the least expensive and comes in various sizes. It is intended for use in coastal waters where help is not too distant. It too will turn an unconscious wearer face up most of the time and has over 6.8 Kilogram of buoyancy.

Type III

Many people favour this type because of its relative comfort, but they typically will not turn a face down wearer right side up. Type III life jackets are available in a wide variety of sizes and are made for a number of different activities, such as water skiing. These PFDs have at least 6.8 Kilogram of buoyancy.

Type V

Called "special use" life jackets, this type typically is used in marine work environments. Included in this type are "hybrid" PFD's that combine the positive flotation found in all PFDs with the added security of an inflatable bladder.

Inflatable life jackets

Boaters today are faced with a choice between standard life jackets (which comply with all the laws) or the newer inflatable ones (which also meet the requirements). Some people prefer the inflatable life jackets because when worn in the uninflated mode, a person's movement is much less restricted than with a standard life jacket. Inflatable life jackets will pass the muster for the purpose of being counted as one of the required number of PFDs aboard a boat..


The saying goes, "The best life jacket is the one you will wear."
According to data posted by the Coast Guard on its Boating Safety Resource Center, life jackets could prevent two-thirds of the children who drown from ages 14 and under in boating related accidents. The Coast Guard estimates that wearing life jackets could have saved the life of four out of five boating accident fatalities.

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About the Author

A reporter since 2005, David Eiranova wrote for "The Lunenburg Ledger," from 2007 to 2009 and has served as a correspondent for "The Lowell Sun." He holds a Bachelor of Arts in economics. Since 2007 he has been the director of publicity for the Acton Community Chorus.