Last Saturday at 5:44 p.m. marked the beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere, the moment when our portion of the planet enjoys its maximum tilt toward the sun. In Maryland, the warmer waters and longer days mark the return of a deep-seated cultural tradition: boating. It might be a little skiff puttering around a local stream or it may involve some 50-foot cruiser headed to a popular Chesapeake Bay port like St. Michaels, Rock Hall or Oxford, but getting in a boat is a summer treat on par with a dozen jumbo steamed crabs and a pitcher of cold beer. Sadly, there’s another tradition associated with boating in Maryland that’s not so welcome — the tendency of boat operators and their passengers to believe they are safe if they simply have the minimum number of life jackets on board.
A recent survey by the U.S. Coast Guard underscores this widespread disdain for actually wearing a personal flotation device or PFD. Nationwide, only about 6.5% of adults wear a life jacket in an open motorboat, according to the observational research conducted in 2019. The results are worse in Maryland where the Coast Guard, using a dozen years of data, found that, on average, about 2.2% of powerboat users wore them which was 24th among the 30 states studied (although sailors and paddlecraft users ranked higher at 13th). To be fair, the state’s results have experienced something of an upturn over the last decade rising from a rate of less than 2% a decade ago to 2.9% in the most recent results.
The problem with this disdain for wearing life jackets is that it’s dangerous. Most boaters will, of course, have fun and not be involved in any accidents or mishaps this summer and, perhaps, ever. But some will not. And when the unexpected strikes, they are far better off if they are wearing some form of PFD. Last year, there were 144 boating accidents in Maryland resulting in 20 deaths. In 2018, there were 132 reported accidents and 17 deaths, and that was substantially more than were recorded in 2017. You see the pattern. As a rule of thumb, most boating fatalities are the result of drowning, and the vast majority of those who drown (more than 85%, according to Coast Guard research) were not wearing a PFD.
Sure, you can assure yourself you are a good swimmer. Perhaps everyone on your vessel is (although that would defy the odds given how research shows more than half of Americans would not pass a swimming test). But how is your swimming when your clothing is waterlogged and you’ve hit your head on the side of the boat? Of if your leg was just gouged by the propeller? That last scenario is exactly what happened, incidentally, to two women on a boat trip around Ocean City this month, one of whom had to be flown to Shock Trauma in Baltimore. She’s fine, by the way, but it’s a safe bet she never expected that to happen. The outcome was far worse for the 40-year-old daughter of former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and her 8-year-old son. They drowned in a canoe accident in Shady Side in early April attempting to retrieve a ball. Neither was wearing a life jacket.
Under Maryland law, boaters must have one wearable PFD for everyone on board. Children under 13 are required to wear them on boats under 21 feet long that are underway. But it’s prudent for teens and adults to wear them whenever possible, too. It’s not unlike a lot of risks Marylanders are taking this summer, whether it’s to face the COVID-19 virus or the chance of an accident on the road. Personal protective gear, social distancing and, in the case of the highways, seat belts, are a smart choice. Sure, you may not need them today, or tomorrow or the day after that. But people seldom have the luxury of knowing exactly when the unexpected is to be expected. It’s summer. There are some 200,000 boats registered in this state. Let’s have fun and explore Maryland’s waterways (practicing appropriate social distancing, of course) with the luxury of some peace of mind and the reassurance of a life jacket around our shoulders.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.