Life Jackets Save Lives

Upstate Outdoors
June 01, 2018 - 10:27 am

Phillip Gentry

Two things stand out vividly in my memory about growing up on the shores of Lake Hartwell during the 1970’s where my family maintained a summer home. The first was an automobile accident where somebody blew through a stop sign resulting in a collision that catapulted 6 year old me into the dash of my uncles F-100 pickup. Like most folks in those days, I was sitting straddling the gear shift, unrestrained, between two adults who were also not wearing seatbelts. That memory, a bloody nose, and busted lip were my reward for the event.

The second was riding in the family’s green Glassmaster tri-hull boat, complete with Johnson 88 Seahorse outboard, and falling overboard when the driver made a sharp turn to pick up a fallen water skier. That event was far less traumatic, because tied around my neck and chest was a big rectangular block of orange life jacket that my parents insisted I wear.

Fast forward to today. I still spend a lot of week-ends on the shores of Lake Hartwell - boating, fishing, and enjoying the water. On the way to the lake, I never put the truck in drive unless my seatbelt is securely fastened, yet I’m not entirely sure which compartment on the boat the life jackets, a requirement by law to have on board, are stowed in.

The United States Coast Guard’s (USCG) annual report of Recreational Boating Statistics revealed a total of 658 deaths and 2,817 injuries as a result of recreational boating accidents in 2017. Where the cause of death was known, over 75 percent of fatal accident victims drowned. 80 percent of the victims who drowned were not wearing a life jacket.

This week, the Upstate was reminded yet again of how quickly a favorite past time can turn tragic with the loss of another life on Lake Hartwell. The identity of Martin Acevedo, a boater who disappeared into Lake Hartwell, was disclosed Tuesday afternoon by Capt. Robert McCullough of the state Department of Natural Resources. The next day, Acevedo’s body was recovered.

According to McCullough, Acevedo, who was the passenger in a 19 foot bass boat when it apparently struck a wave while the boat was underway, ejecting both occupants from the vessel, was not wearing a life jacket.

From 1985 to 1998, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) decided to use advertising to promote seat belt use. Motorists became intimately familiar with Vince and Larry, the slapstick crash test dummies who became household names with the slogan “Don’t Be a Dummy, Buckle Up.”

The campaign was wildly successful, not only in getting legislators on board with passing mandatory seatbelt usage laws, the “Click-It or Ticket” still rings true today, but also with profound public awareness.

Agencies like SCDNR, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and National Safety Council have been pushing life jacket usage for years, and while statistics are showing some improvement, the movement is far behind the success of the historic seat belt campaigns. 

One possible explanation is the legislative backing. Currently in South Carolina, all boats must have a US Coast Guard approved wearable type PFD for each person on board. Only children under the age of 12 and operators of personal watercraft are required by law to be wearing life jackets.

Neighboring states have enacted laws requiring all occupants of a vessel to wear approved life jackets while the vessel is underway or the main motor is above idle speed. South Carolina would be well advised to consider similar requirements. 

With all the campaign promises being slung about during this election year, maybe the timing is right for South Carolina to get some much overdue legislation in boating safety.


Phillip Gentry is the host of "Upstate Outdoors," broadcast noon to 2 p.m. Saturdays on 106.3 WORD FM. The show can also be heard online at live or via podcast. This week’s guest will be Sandy Campbell, Natural Resource Program Manager for USACE – Lake Hartwell. 


Advances in life jacket design now make wearing your PFD much easier and more comfortable during on-the-water activities. Photo by Phillip Gentry.


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