life jacket law

A child-sized life vest.

Children are not required to wear a life jacket when boating in Wisconsin — one of two states in the country without a law.

State lawmakers are considering a bipartisan bill that would rectify that, requiring all children under 13 to wear a life jacket when they are on any kind of boat, jetski or are waterskiing or tubing.

The bill would prohibit the driver of a boat or other recreational water vehicle from carrying someone under 13 unless the child is wearing a life jacket, or if the child is below deck or in an enclosed cabin. The personal flotation device would have to be properly fitting and approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. Virginia is the only other state that has no law mandating life jackets, according to the BoatU.S. Foundation, a national boat safety association.

Wisconsin’s current law requires that a life jacket be “readily accessible” on a boat for each person aboard, but that isn’t enough, said Greg Bohn, testifying at a hearing for the bill Wednesday.

 “This is the most neglectful child safety issue we have in the state of Wisconsin,” said Bohn, who runs a Northwoods fishing business and has been an advocate for a law in the state. “Readily accessible doesn’t work. It doesn’t save lives. It actually costs people their lives.”

A  U.S. Coast Guard rule does require children under 13 to wear a life jacket on federal waters including the Great Lakes and major rivers through the state, but the rule does not cover the more than 15,000 lakes in Wisconsin that hosts boating and other water sports.

More than two-thirds of all boating fatalities are drowning incidents and 90 percent of drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket, according to the BoatU.S. Foundation, using U.S. Coast Guard data.

“I can’t say many children are dying by not having a life jacket on, (but) it does make sense to us that we would have a law for children that age because we can’t realistically expect them to understand the situations they’re in,” said Chris Edmonston, president of BoatU.S. Foundation.

The age requirement for life jackets vary nationwide, he said. Some states require life vests for children under age 13, 10, 8 or 6, he said. It’s been several years since the last state law was passed, he said.

Minnesota passed a law requiring children under 10 to wear a life jacket in 2005. The state has not seen a significant decline in the number of child boating deaths because of its law, but numbers of deaths weren’t high before, said Stan Linnell, the boating law administrator for Minnesota, who also works for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“The good news is we weren’t losing a lot of kids either before or after,” he said.  “What is critical is the times we do see drowning, is when a child is not wearing life jacket.”

A child life jacket requirement affects adults too, because they will often jump off a boat to assist a child who isn’t wearing one, Linnell said. That risk becomes greater if there’s an added stress, injury or water conditions are poor, even if the child or adult knows how to swim.

“When you’re thrown off a boat, you may be knocked out, you may have a mouth full of water. Even if you’re a great swimmer, you may not be able to save yourself,” he said. “It’s not just, ‘Well, I taught my kids to swim so they don’t need a life jacket,’ they do.”

Several law enforcement agencies statewide support the bill, including the Dane County Sheriff’s Office. Sgt. John Brogan testified in support of the bill Wednesday.

“When people panic on the water they have no clue where they are … sometimes finding them is the biggest thing … children are depending on their parents to take care of them and make good decisions,” he said. “There’s a lot of unexpected things that happen on the water.”

The Senate bill was introduced by Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, Sen. Chris Larson, D- Milwaukee, Sen. Julie Lassa, R-Stevens Point, Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, and Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison. The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy will have to vote on it before the full chamber would consider it. 

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.