Observing Life Vest Use

One method of evaluating drowning prevention efforts focused on the use of life vests (also known as personal flotation devices, PFDs or life jackets) is observation of life vest use on boats. The observation method was initially developed by students and faculty at the University of Washington. The Washington State Drowning Prevention Network adapted and implemented the observation protocol at sites throughout Washington state. Observations have been conducted in 1992, 1994, 1997, 2000 and now 2010.

For 2010, the observations are being done by the Washington State Parks Boating Program, Seattle Children's Hospital and the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center in partnership with the Washington State Drowning Prevention Network and volunteer observers across the state.


The information obtained from the observations provides baseline data prior to initiating drowning prevention interventions. Observations conducted after an intervention are compared to the baseline data to measure program impact.


In brief, the observations involve two volunteers at a site watching for life vest use among children and adults in boats. Using binoculars and special forms to record information, observations include weather and water conditions, number of passengers, life vest use, gender, age and type of boat.


Each site is visited twice and observation times are 90 minutes each. To maximize the number of observations, it is preferable to view boats on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. The observations are repeated periodically using the same sites, time of year and procedures to measure change.


Popular recreational boating areas across the state are selected for observation. The sites should have a lot of boat traffic, and a safe place for an observer to sit.


Recruit volunteers from drowning prevention coalitions, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, U.S. Power Squadrons or scout groups to conduct observations. All observers must receive training prior to the first observation date.

For More Information

If you are interested in conducting observations in your own county or health district, call or e-mail Tizzy Bennett, Director of Guest Services, Partnerships and Advocacy at Seattle Children's Hospital for more information.

  • Phone: 206-987-5718
  • Email