Life jackets are a recommended safety precaution for boaters and swimmers alike. However, in some states and situations, it is required by law that patrons use life jackets.
These laws can vary by state and by facility, so before engaging in a water activity that may require a life jacket, consult the manager or information website of the facility or park. When learning about the different requirements of each state, there is some important terminology to keep in mind.
Terms to Know
Personal flotation device. The U.S. Coast Guard will refer to life jackets as such in their materials.
Coast Guard-approved PFD
This is a term that will be referenced often in official life jacket requirements. Coast Guard-approved life jackets have been properly tested for their safety features and have an approval number stamped inside the jacket.
Type I PFD
A type of life jacket that is the most buoyant but the least comfortable. It will turn most wearers face up if unconscious in the water and is best for sailing in rough weather or in remote areas.
Type II PFD
A life jacket with less buoyancy but will still turn unconscious swimmers face up in the water. This is a common life jacket to see on commercial boats.
Type III PFD
The least movement-constricting of the first three types of life jackets, but the least buoyant. Many people who do slow boating such as canoeing, dinghy sailing, kayaking and paddle boarding will wear this type of jacket.
Type IV PFD
A throwable type of flotation device. Not a life jacket.
Type V PFD
An inflatable type of life jacket not approved by several states for children. Experienced boaters and sailors sometimes prefer this type of jacket for the increased mobility as opposed to wearing a Type III PFD.
Life Jackets in State Parks
Individual states set their own policies, so each state’s parks website will have the most consistent and up-to-date information concerning their personal life jacket policies. However, most state parks will have some guidelines in common. A Coast Guard-approved life jacket must be used in situations where a life jacket is required, which varies by state.
Coast Guard-approved jackets usually refer to wearable devices, and not to a Type IV throwable device. Life jackets are highly recommended for those who do not feel comfortable swimming by themselves in open water or in currents, but are not required.
Because there are not usually lifeguards on duty in state parks, swimmers are not monitored for life jacket use in the same way as boaters.
Life Jackets in Public Facilities (Pools, Waterparks, Etc.)
Many places like community pools, waterparks and natatoriums will require life jacket usage depending on the age of the child, the skill level of the child and the depth of water in which they want to swim.
Community pools will often hold deep-water tests for younger swimmers, which may involve swimming across the pool and back in the deepest area of the pool, treading water for a certain period or putting on a life jacket while in the water. If this test is not offered by a lifeguard or manager, then patrons should assess their children, and when in doubt, have them wear a life jacket anyways.
The rules of different facilities are dictated by themselves individually, so different facilities in the same state may have different life jacket requirements depending on their specific water features.
Life Jacket Usage While Boating
Most states have a requirement for when life jackets need to be worn on boats or floating vessels. Depending on the state, the type of jacket, age of the child, the size of the craft and the operations that the craft is undertaking, the law may vary. For example, here are some examples of state laws regarding wearing life jackets while boating:
Children under the age of 12 must wear a Type I, II or III PFD on any size recreational vessel while the vessel is underway, EXCEPT if they are in an enclosed cabin or below deck.
Children under the age of 10 must wear a Coast Guard-approved PFD on boats less than 18 feet in length while on board.
Children under the age of 6 must wear a Type I, II or III PFD on any boat less than 26 feet in length while it is underway (not including being docked or aground)
In states that do not have any existing life jacket laws, the US Coast Guard has set an interim rule stating that children under the age of 13 must wear life jackets on boats in motion.
However, this is only in states where there are no laws already set in place, so before boating, it is wise to check the life jacket laws by state.