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Senate requires kids to wear life vests

RICHMOND – Rough waters, bad weather or other emergency situations can occur suddenly, leaving little or no time to put on a life jacket. That’s why the U.S. Coast Guard recommends wearing a life jacket on board a vessel as a safety precaution.

That suggestion might become more than good advice: It would be the law for children in Virginia under a bill approved recently by the state Senate.

Senators voted 30-10 for Senate Bill 93, sponsored by Sen. Fred Quayle, R-Suffolk. It states that “all children under the age of 13 are to wear a type I, II, III or type V Coast Guard-approved flotation device while on recreational vessels under 21 feet in length.” The legislation excludes any recreational vessel moored or anchored, and it would not apply to children below deck.

Of the 22 Democratic senators, all but one (Chap Petersen of Fairfax) voted for SB 93. Of the 18 Republican senators, nine voted for the bill and nine against it.

Similar legislation, House Bill 168, has been introduced by Delegate Brenda L. Pogge, R-Yorktown. Her bill has been referred to the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety. Last week, a subcommittee voted 3-2 to recommend postponing consideration for the proposal.

Federal law requires the same standards set by SB 93 and HB 168. However, Virginia law is not concurrent with federal law. Virginia conservation police officers cannot cite boaters if the children on board aren’t wearing life jackets. Only the U.S. Coast Guard can issue the citation.

Quayle said his bill would make Virginia law conform to federal law and Coast Guard regulations – “so that we could have joint enforcement by both state agencies as well as the Coast Guard.”

People who violate the law while boating in Virginia waters would be assessed a civil penalty of $100 issued by the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The money would go into the state’s Motorboat and Water Safety Fund.

The penalty could be waived if the violator completes a boating safety education course.

Quayle said wearing a personal floatation device is an important safety measure for youngsters: “As far as children are concerned, it is a good thing.”

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, half of all recreational boating fatalities – mostly drownings – happen in calm water and often close to shore. In most fatalities, life preservers were stored on board but not worn.

The U.S. Coast Guard recommends that “you wear – not just carry – a life jacket while boating.”

If SB 93 passes and becomes law, it would take effect Jan. 1, 2011.