Survey: Throwable Device Exception Survey


Throwable Device Exception Survey


This survey is very important to the National Boating Safety Advisory Council (NBSAC) as it will help inform the development of the council’s recommendation to the U.S. Coast Guard on how to increase life jacket usage, while at the same time, ease regulatory constraints for river rafts on our nation’s whitewater rivers. NBSAC is a federal advisory committee that provides recommendations to the Coast Guard concerning boating safety. 


Most commercial river rafting companies, and most whitewater state laws throughout the United States, require rafters to wear a personal floatation device (PFD).  Rafts 16 feet in length and greater are currently required under federal law to carry an additional throwable PFD. However, throwable PFDs on whitewater rivers have proven to be far less effective than throw bags when rescuing persons in the water.  In contrast, throw bags are considered the standard of care for whitewater rescue and are used to conduct rescues on a daily basis on many whitewater rivers. 


On moving water, subjects in the water are exposed to a number of hazards, including debris in the water that can lead to underwater entrapment. Because they must be held, throwable devices make it more difficult for subjects to swim to safety.  Therefore, throwable devices may actually increase the risk to subjects in the water.  Furthermore, to be effective, rescue devices must be readily accessible.  Securing a throwable device in a raft so that it is both accessible and secure can be problematic. 


The USCG has tasked NBSAC to recommend a solution to the throwable PFD/throw bag situation. 


As you prepare to answer the questions in this survey, take a moment to reflect on this question “what is the most important piece of safety equipment for the recreational boater”? 


According to Performance Report Part II submissions in 2019, the states issued 1,483 Citations/Arrests and a whopping 10,295 Warnings for throwable PFDs. During the same timeframe, the USCG issued 1,089 citations and 605 warnings for a combined total of 2,575 Citations and 10,900 Warnings. In nearly 75% of inspections, warnings were preferable over issuing a citation. Why? 


Imagine if there was a law exempting boaters on all vessels, not just rafts, less than 26’ in length from carrying the throwable by the simple act of wearing their PFDs instead of just carrying them on board. Using 2019 stats, over 2,500 boat operators would potentially not have received a citation, and presumably 26,950 (at just 2 persons in a boat) boaters may have worn a PFD instead of just keeping them readily accessible.  


In 2019, where cause of death was known, 79% of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims with reported life jacket usage, 86% were not wearing a life jacket. These statistics have remained fairly steady over the years. 


For 50 years, we’ve required boaters to carry life jackets, and in some instances, there are mandates for the wearing of the PFD (Personal Watercraft, kids under 13, watersports, etc.). However, when you look PFD wear-rate studies over the past 20 years, wear has only increased slightly. So, how do we move the needle?  


Will all boaters wear a PFD so they don’t have to carry a throwable? Probably not. But giving boaters options may increase wear rates.  


Going back to the original question about the most important piece of safety gear, odds are good you thought “life jacket”. But is it really the just life jacket itself, or is it the wearing of a life jacket that actually makes it the most important piece of safety gear?  Getting boaters to “Wear It” is job #1! 


NBSAC Resolution 2017-98-02 Amend 33 CFR Part 175, Equipment Requirements, as follows: 

  • Reduce unnecessary regulatory burden on users of manually propelled vessels of all types and lengths by eliminating the requirement to carry a throwable (formerly referred to as "Type IV") PFD when all occupants onboard are properly wearing a Coast Guard approved wearable life jacket. 
  • Update terminology by including definitions for "paddlecraft," "racing paddlecraft," "racing shell," and "racing scull."  


NOTE: Throw bags are not defined or mentioned in CFR. Since they are not mentioned as either a life saving device or as “associated equipment”, states are allowed to require their boaters to have a throw bag (WV has a throw bag requirement in state statute). Just as some states require rearview mirrors, skier flags, anchors and/or paddles, they can require throw bags.  



  1. Increase life jacket wear rate. 
  2. Allow the use of throw bags as rescue devices. 
  3. Remove the need for throwable flotation devices in venues where they are unlikely to be of use and where they might actually increase risk. 



In reviewing potential application of any rule changes, several challenges are present. 


  1. Although the 2018 Authorization Act mentions rafts, rowboats (e.g., Grand Canyon dories, with an original design based on Grand Banks fishing dories) also are used on whitewater.   
  2. Many commercial rafting operations use motors to transit flatwater sections of rivers.  However, throwable devices are required for motorized craft 16 feet or longer. 
  3. Rule changes designed to address the issue at hand may have wider impact. 



NBSAC has identified four possible options. 

  1. Allow states exemptions from preemption (33 CFR 175.5) with regard to throwable device carriage 

Pro:      allows state level decisions, to meet local needs 

            allows states to require throw bags if appropriate for their boating conditions. 


Con:     does nothing to increase life jacket wear 

            Requires preemption discussion 

            Potential for confusion when crossing state lines 


2. Exempt human propelled craft of any length from throwable device carriage 

Pro:      national decision, with no change when crossing state boundaries 

Con:     does nothing to increase life jacket wear (although that could be added as a condition for exemption) 

            does not include motorized craft, which USCG has been tasked with addressing 


3. Allow a throw bag to replace a throwable flotation device for all craft under 26 feet LOA if all occupants are wearing a flotation device all the time 

Pro:      meets original intent of the 2018 Authorization Act 

             encourages life jacket wear 

             includes motorized craft 

Con:     requires definition of a throw bag as a new type of rescue device in CFR, which is expected to take several years


4. Exempt all craft under 26 feet LOA from carrying a throwable flotation device if all occupants are wearing a flotation device all the time 

Pro:      national decision 
            encourages life jacket wear 
            includes motorized craft 
            allows states to define and require a throw bag if needed 

Con:     applies to all craft 

After extensive discussion, NBSAC’s Prevention Through People Subcommittee believes that option four (4), exempting all craft under 26 feet LOA from throwable device carriage if all occupants wear a life jacket at all times when aboard, is the best solution.  Rafting operators have already indicated their support for the policy, and generally already require PFD wear.   However, before recommending this to NBSAC and the USCG, we believe it is important to survey Boating Law Administrators and other interested parties, to assess their feelings on the proposed changes.  Please take a few moments to complete the survey found at survey will close on October 9, 2020.  We appreciate your help.


Very Respectfully, 

Jim Emmons, Chair NBSAC

Robin Pope, Chair, NBSAC Prevention Through People Subcommittee