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.
Last week, the U.S. Coast Guard took the unusual step of withdrawing a final rule on life jackets that it had published in March, citing as the sole reason for its reversal a critical letter from a Florida woman who was not lobbying on behalf of anybody.
The decision leaves the life jacket industry in limbo as it waits for the Coast Guard to restart its rule-making process, and it shows how a single voice can sometimes move federal mountains, even if the voice belongs to a part-time jazz singer from Wesley Chapel, Fla.
Susan Balistreri is no amateur in the life jacket business — she has been an independent consultant to life jacket manufacturers for 30 years, helping them design products and negotiate the byzantine processes of regulatory agencies and international standards that determine which life preservers get approved.
But she is also a staunch advocate for child safety. Balistreri was moved to action over her concern that the Coast Guard was moving toward allowing teenagers to use inflatable life preservers that are designed for adults but that she believes younger boaters don't have the capacity to use properly.
Wielding that argument, Balistreri single-handedly took the air out of a Coast Guard rule.
Cindy Squires, director of regulatory affairs for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, said the Coast Guard's March rule-making was intended to open the door for an international standards organization to write new standards for inflatable life preservers.
"We want to get life jacket use up," Squires said, "particularly among that group that is least likely to wear a life jacket — the tweens or teens." The industry believes the way to do that is to provide life jackets that are less bulky than the old orange summer camp vests that have been the standard for decades.
The Coast Guard has approved for "use by adults only" inflatable life jackets that are much less cumbersome out of water and either inflate automatically upon being submerged or can be triggered to inflate by the wearer.
The agency issued a new rule in March stating that "although the Coast Guard is not yet ready to revisit the issue of inflatable (personal flotation devices) for children, the industry has begun ... to explore the appropriateness of these devices for children and create an appropriate standard."
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."
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