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Life jackets have been in the forefront of life saving since 1852 when steamboats were required to carry a life preserver for every passenger. The best life jacket in the world is worthless, however, if it isn't being worn when it's needed. Pennsylvania boating accident statistics show that 80% of people involved in boating-related drownings each year are not wearing life jackets.

Since predicting an accident is next to impossible, it’s best to wear a life jacket at all times when on the water. Unfortunately, some boaters don't like to wear conventional life jackets. They consider conventional life jackets to be bulky or uncomfortable. Recent innovations in materials and designs have gone a long way toward addressing comfort. Perhaps the most promising are inflatable live preservers.

Actually, inflatable life jackets are nothing new. But they are gaining wider acceptance as more people recognize that the devices’ comfort. The low profile and weight of inflatables makes that practice more practical. In fact, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) Waterways Conservation Officers are now issued and wear inflatable life jackets while they’re on patrol.

So how do inflatable life jackets work? Depending on the model, one or more air bladders inflate automatically or manually. An automatic system inflates the life jacket when it becomes immersed in water, without any action by the wearer. It is the closest in performance to the classic buoyant life jacket since it requires no operator intervention to activate. This is a critical factor when the wearer is, or may be, disabled prior to or upon entering the water.  

The manual system inflates when a user pulls a lanyard to activate a carbon dioxide canister. Manual systems are the simplest to maintain. They are less susceptible to unwanted or inadvertent inflation, but rely entirely on wearer intervention.

All models also have an oral backup. The oral system requires the user to blow air into the device through a tube. Oral inflation is considered a backup system because the effort required to use the device may be greater than the user can provide in some circumstances.

Inflatables are approved for all adults and for children 30 pounds and over. Children’s inflatables have built-in foam so they will float before the unit is inflated. Boaters should choose the inflation system that best meets their personal needs.

Life jacket users prefer the comfort of inflatables to conventional life jackets, however the units must be rearmed properly after use. The newly designed inflatables are designed to minimize the chances of improper rearming. Many inflatables now have an indicator to minimize the risk of incorrectly resetting the inflater. Unfortunately, indicators that show the cartridge is actually loaded are further away. But every U.S. Coast Guard-approved inflatable does come with directions and an owner's manual. Careful reading and adherence to the instructions makes proper use easy.

Because of their design, inflatable life jackets are slightly more expensive than traditional life jackets. Average costs range from $70 for manually inflated types up to $190 for the high-end automatics.

“It’s a small price to pay to save a life. The most important bottom line is it’s important for boaters to take the time to choose a device that they will wear and meets the need of the activity they are participating in and will work for the environment to which they are exposed,” says Dan Martin, Boating Safety Education Manager for the PFBC.

In Pennsylvania and most other states, inflatable life jackets are not approved for use on specialized boats known as personal watercraft. They are also not approved for anyone being towed behind a boat.

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