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Single Voice Sinks Coast Guard’s Rule

Samir Hussein/WireImage
Prince William of Britain and his wife, Catherine, shown above in Canada this summer, sport the style of life jacket that Susan Balistreri thinks are inappropriate for children.

But in making the new rule, the Coast Guard removed the words "approved for use by adults only" from its own regulations, arguing that the change "has no substantive effect" because the life vests still have to meet existing industry standards, which limit the use of inflatable vests to people 16 and older. Without Coast Guard action to drop those limitations, international standard-setting organizations such as Underwriters Laboratories Inc. could not begin drafting new standards for youth use of inflatables, Squires said. Her organization submitted a comment on the rules, saying, "This action moves us one critical step closer to making inflatable lifejackets available for youth under 16 years of age."

The Coast Guard issued the new rule without providing opportunity for public comment because, as the agency admitted last week, it "considered this rule to be noncontroversial and did not expect any adverse comment."

But Balistreri objected. In a May 1 letter written on the self-made letterhead of Balistreri Consulting, she wrote that deleting the "adults only" language "could enable currently approved inflatable product to be marketed to teens 12-15 years of age."

Balistreri's eight-page letter summarizes an array of studies on the safety of inflatable vests for youth and the propensity of young people to engage in risky behaviors and concluded that there is a need for more scientific study before an inflatable device can be approved for use by younger people.

Therefore, Balistreri declared, "I challenge the underlying premise and approach for this language removal; I consider it totally inappropriate and unacceptable at this time."

Last week, the Coast Guard acknowledged receiving "one adverse comment" Balistreri's which required the agency to withdraw the rule and start over with a full rule-making process with public comment. It is not clear when that process will begin.

Jeff Hoedt, chief of the Boating Safety Division at Coast Guard Headquarters, said Balistreri's complaint "moved us back a step, without a doubt." Hoedt said he has known Balistreri for years and that she "continues to work on life jacket design." She has been a member of a national advisory council on boating safety and "she has some background on how the Coast Guard functions," Hoedt said.

In general, Hoedt said, for Coast Guard rules, "the number of comments that come in is typically not very large some good in-depth comments come in, so it is not surprising to me to have a comment come in." But Hoedt acknowledged that it is unusual for the agency to withdraw a final rule.

Virgil Chambers, executive director of the National Safe Boating Council, said that while Balistreri is concerned that inflatable vests are unsafe for children, "there are a lot of people who disagree with that."

Squires said Balistreri has significant expertise in life jacket design and regulation but added that "she is somewhat of an outlier" in her opposition to inflatable jackets for youth.

Balistreri also is an unusual participant in the rule-making process because, as she told Roll Call, "I have no client in this. I am not doing this to further anybody's economic advantage." She said she comes to the debate armed with data about the relatively weak capacity of youth to make quick lifesaving decisions and that "everybody realizes this gal is not playing. They take me seriously."

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