Rhode Island has joined a short list of U.S. states requiring a life jacket be worn by all paddlers at all times.
On March 23, 2023, the state announced a new law that took effect in April, stating, “All operators & passengers of canoes, kayaks, sailboards, kiteboards, paddleboards, and any other paddlecraft shall wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD at all times while underway regardless of age.” Paddlers not wearing a PFD may be subject to a $100 fine.
New Rhode Island Law Requires Paddlers To Always Wear PFDs
The state’s new law was motivated by the three fatal kayak incidents in 2022, as well as the state’s recognition that nearly half of its boating-related drownings occurring between 2018 and 2021 were paddlecraft users not wearing life jackets.
Rhode Island is only the second state currently requiring persons, in an all-encompassing range of paddlecraft, to be wearing a life jacket at all times, regardless of age. New Mexico was the first. A few additional states, including Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts, have seasonal laws for all paddlers to be wearing a PFD during the colder months. It should be noted, in every U.S. state, children are required to wear a PFD while paddling, and in the vast majority of states that age consideration is 13 and under.
The Providence Journal shared the opinion of a handful of paddlers as the new law went into effect. Some felt it is an overreach by their state government, while others, including members of area paddling associations, feel it is a net positive for safety.
Most states already require a life jacket to be on board paddlecrafts, but having every paddler wear their life jacket has not broadly been enacted at the legislative level.
In the Providence Journal article, Captain Michael Schipritt, the boating safety coordinator for Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Law Enforcement, puts the difference between having and wearing as such: “There is no time to put a life jacket on before a paddling accident. It’s like trying to buckle your seat belt before a car crash.”
New law dovetails with Coast Guard campaign
Getting paddlers to put on their life jackets has long been an educational mission of the U.S. Coast Guard.
The USCG 2022 summary of statistics on recreational boating incidents states, “Where the cause of death was known, 75 percent of fatal boating incident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims with reported life jacket usage, 85 percent were not wearing a life jacket.”
Three out of every four drownings that occurred in the Coast Guard’s 2022 report were in vessels 21 feet or under, a category nearly all paddlecraft fall into. The Coast Guard also shares that in 2022, 21 percent of drownings involved a canoe or kayak.
The message the Coast Guard has resoundingly echoed over the horn is to put on a life jacket. In Rhode Island, this safety message has evolved the way of the seat belt and will now be enforced for paddlers to “click it or ticket” in their effort to make waterways safer for recreation.
Save $100—and potentially your life—by always wearing a PFD while paddling. | Feature photo: Courtesy Old Town Canoes and Kayaks