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Life Jacket Rules for on the Water

Improve safety on the water by selecting and wearing the appropriate life jacket.

They’re called life jackets for a reason. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, in 2012 around 71 percent of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those who drowned, close to 85 percent weren’t wearing life jackets.

“Make sure you’re familiar with state laws before you go out on the water, so you know when you need to wear a life jacket to be safe in certain activities or locations,” says Bernice McArdle, executive director of the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association (PFDMA). “For children age 12 and younger, life jackets are usually mandatory in most states.”

Even if you aren’t required to wear one, it’s a good idea. “Don’t just have it handy—wear it,” McArdle says. “Get to like it, know it and be comfortable in it.”

Use this guide to find a life jacket that fits your needs.

Buying the right size helps you feel more comfortable wearing your life jacket regularly. To find the perfect fit, try on a few at a store. If possible test the life jacket on shallow water. A sales specialist should be able to help you select a Coast Guard-approved life jacket based on your chest size and weight.

You also should check the fit regularly—especially for children. “With children, often parents buy life jackets too big, thinking their children will grow into them,” McArdle says. “A child will slide right out of an ill-fitting life jacket—a proper-fitting jacket is essential.” If the jacket rides up over your chin or face, it’s too big. If you have trouble clasping your life jacket, or if it feels uncomfortably tight, it’s time to buy a larger size.

Life jackets are often specialized for different types of water sports. McArdle says you can find life jackets with extra chest padding for women, with higher torsos for paddle sports or with wide-cut arms for action sports such as skiing, wakeboarding and tubing. A sales representative can help you select the right type of life jacket for your activity of choice.

Keeping your life jacket in good condition can help preserve its effectiveness. “It’s important to check life jackets every season for rips or faulty zippers that might compromise their performance,” McArdle says. “Inflatable life jackets need extra inspection to ensure that the inflatable chambers are intact and free from damage, and that the carbon dioxide cylinder and firing mechanisms are in working order.” These tips from PFDMA can help you keep your life jackets in safe condition.

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