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Requirements & Law
Boaters are required, by law, to wear life jackets on boats less than 16 feet in length or any canoe or kayak during the cold weather months from November 1 through April 30. This requirement is intended to protect boaters from the dangers of cold water shock if they fall into the water.

The risk of an accident being fatal is significantly higher when the air and water temperatures are colder in late fall through spring. Over the last 15 years, cold water incidents represented only eight percent of the boating-related accidents, but they resulted in 24 percent of the fatalities. Victims who are wearing a life jacket when exposed to cold water have potentially life-saving advantages.

All boats must have a USCG-approved wearable (Type I, II, III, or V) life jacket on board for each person.

In addition to wearable life jackets, boats 16 feet and over must have a throwable device (Type IV) on board. Canoes and kayaks, regardless of length, are not required to carry a throwable device.

Life jackets must be used in accordance with any requirements on the approval label.

All life jackets must be in good and serviceable condition and legibly marked showing the USCG approval number. This means the life jacket must be fully functional, free of tears or defects in the material. All buckles, straps, zippers and other closures must be operable.

Wearable life jackets must be “readily accessible,” which means that they are stowed where they can be easily reached or that they are out in the open ready to wear. Throwables devices must be “immediately available,” which means that the device cannot be in a protective covering and shall be within arm’s reach of the operator or passenger while the boat is operated. A PFD that is sealed in its original packaging is not readily accessible or immediately available.

Life jackets must be the appropriate size for the person intended and adjusted to wear.

A throwable device may not be used as a substitute for a wearable device.

Who Must Wear A Life Jacket?
  • Children 12 years of age and younger on Commonwealth waters when underway in any boat 20 feet or less in length and in all canoes and kayaks.
  • On Pittsburgh District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes (only), everyone in boats under 16 feet and in all canoes and kayaks.
  • All water skiers and anyone towed behind boats, in addition to personal watercraft operators and passengers, and sailboarders (windsurfers) are required to wear a life jacket. Inflatable life jackets are not acceptable for these activities.
  • Boaters are required, by law, to wear life jackets on boats less than 16 feet in length or any canoe or kayak during the cold weather months from November 1 through April 30.
Wear It Pennsylvania! logoFor a life jacket to work properly, not only does it need to be on your body, it should fit properly as well. A properly fitting life jacket is more comfortable (meaning you are more likely to wear it) but more important, it functions better. Life jackets that are too small or large can ride up or even come off when you are in the water.

It’s easy to check a conventional life jacket for proper fit–just put it on. The jacket should fit you snugly with all zippers, straps, ties and snaps correctly secured. With a partner behind you, raise your arms like you are signaling a touchdown in a football game. Have the partner lift the jacket by the shoulders. The jacket should come no higher than your chin. If the jacket covers your face or comes off—that’s what would happen in the water. In this case, tighten the straps or use a smaller size.

The most dangerous hazard on a river is a low-head dam. These dams are on rivers and streams throughout Pennsylvania, and they are true “drowning machines.”

Water going over a dam creates a back current or undertow that can pull a boat into the turbulence and capsize it. This hydraulic can trap and hold a person or boat. Many dams are not marked and are almost impossible to see from upstream.

State law requires that many low-head dams in the Commonwealth be marked with signs and, when practical, buoys upstream and downstream from these dangerous structures. The signs detail restrictions for boating, swimming and wading, and hazards posed by the dam. Restrictions are enforced by PFBC Waterways Conservation Officers. These dams must be avoided and can be located by checking maps and on PFBC’s website:

Boating and Alcohol Do Not Mix!
Alcohol use increases the chances of having an accident. Alcohol affects balance, coordination and judgment. It is illegal to operate a boat while under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance. Penalties include loss of boating privileges, significant fines and imprisonment.
View the PA Boating Handbook for boating laws and boating safety information
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