JJ. Marie, President of Zodiac of North America, Inc., has proposed in a letter to the boating community that with regards to leisure and recreational marine life rafts "it is time for the Coast Guard to make a ruling requiring that life rafts be repacked per the manufacturer's instructions, by individuals approved and trained by the manufacturer."
However good the intentions that Marie lays claim to, and as appealing as this proposal may seem at first glance to many involved in boating safety, I believe his proposal is seriously flawed. As with so many well-intentioned cries for more regulation, this one is still subject to the law-of-unintended-consequences, or perhaps not so unintended.
Is this really a "'life and death' issue" as Marie contends in his letter? In view of the considerable expense this will force on boaters, it had better be. Yet, while many in the industry, including me, bemoan the fact that recreational raft owners often, perhaps even generally, don't have their rafts serviced at reasonable intervals, I don't believe there are any reliable statistics which show that this has resulted in a significant number of fatalities. This is a solution looking for a problem.
Because of the incredibly huge expense that will fall on boaters, I would expect, and hope, that the leisure boating community will fight this proposal tooth and nail should it proceed. Unless well-founded studies indicate significant lives are at stake and that the cost to benefit ratio is acceptable, I don't believe this is the sort of battle that the Coast Guard needs to fight right now. The Coast Guard has much bigger and more important battles to wage with its limited resources. Moreover, it needs the support of the boating community to win these crucial battles.
Such a regulation will make "criminals" of many, especially given the expense involved. A European manufacturer recently told me that even though their country's laws require annual inspections, they actually average about 2.2 years. On the other hand, so the Coast Guard notes an out of date raft on an inspection; the owner throws it on the dock, it's not required equipment, and off they go sans life raft. How does that further boating safety? The end result will be a lot more boaters pissed off at the Coast Guard. It is counterproductive.
Marie also proposes that "the life raft manufacturer, the product, and the service station must be approved by the Coast Guard." Just what the Coast Guard needs, more oversight responsibility to further stretch an already grossly over-stretched and under-funded budget. Yes, the Coast Guard needs the ability to force a recall, if a raft manufacturer produces a defective product, but that's the limit of what is needed (and itself fraught with complicated issues). Neither the industry nor the consumer needs to foot the bill for added regulation and all that inevitably entails. While it may be appealing to a large manufacturer like Zodiac, smaller raft manufacturers who don't currently produce Coast Guard approved rafts could be severely impacted with no demonstrable improvement in safety, another solution looking for a problem.
Neither is there any demonstrated need for the Coast Guard to approve leisure marine life rafts. While the assumption among the general public is that Coast Guard approved rafts would be better, that isn't necessarily so. It certainly isn't the case with commercial rafts, and any leisure raft standards would necessarily be lower. Some unapproved rafts and some rafts from unapproved manufacturers exceed significantly the performance of many approved commercial rafts. Standards set only a minimum performance level, but give the consumer the false sense that an approved product is tops in performance and quality. That simply isn't true. Many Coast Guard approved products are absolute junk!
All that having such standards and approval process generally accomplishes is the stifling of innovation and increased costs, sometimes dramatically. Neither one of those would be of benefit to the consumer. A voluntary standard for leisure rafts might possibly be useful to the consumer, as they are in other industries, depending upon how it was developed and what it covered. It could just as easily be a disaster, as they often are, misleading buyers as to the quality and performance capabilities of the raft. Attempts to develop such a standard have been handicapped by parochial industry interests and infighting, as is usually the case. Developing a standard for a Coast Guard approved leisure raft would be, itself, a tumultuous exercise fraught with political issues and ripe for influence peddling, the end result of which would likely be no better and possibly worse. One more solution looking for a problem.
Moreover, do we really want to discourage the purchase of life rafts? The cost of service is already a big issue for those contemplating the purchase of a raft, even if they plan to follow a more liberal service interval than that recommended by the manufacturer. I don't think safety is improved by providing any further discouragement to the process of buying a life raft.
A regulation such as this would also tread on very perilous legal ground vis-à-vis U.S. law and precedent. I can't think of any existing legal requirement to service an unregulated and not-legally-required piece of safety equipment. What's next? Failing to replace the battery in your leisure craft's EPIRB in accordance with the manufacturer's recommendations may be stupid, but should it be illegal? The potential downstream consequences are mind-boggling.
It is inevitable that this proposal will lead to a "repack interval war." Regardless of the merits or lack thereof, some raft manufacturers will establish grossly extended service intervals for their products to gain a competitive advantage. We have seen exactly this sort of thing occur in other markets. This could have the overall effect of actually lowering safety margins. I recently uncovered a situation where extended service intervals contributed to a significant delay in discovering potentially life-threatening defects in rafts produced by one manufacturer. Extended service intervals, no matter how appealing, are not a panacea, nor without risk.
Another possible consequence is that we may see the same sort of pricing pressure and marketing in leisure rafts that we now see in Coast Guard approved rafts for the commercial markets, where dealers often sell at their cost in an effort to gain more service business. While initially appealing from the perspective of making rafts more affordable for consumers on the front end, I believe that such pricing pressure inevitably works its way down the supply chain, leading to lower investment in R&D and less innovation by the manufacturers and, potentially, in the erosion of the U.S. manufacturing base. Moreover, as noted above, overall cost of ownership will inevitably rise for many raft owners.
This proposal favors foreign manufacturers, and Marie works for one of the largest. I wouldn't go so far as to impugn Marie's motives, but the fact remains that his parent company is one that has the most to gain. There are a number of factors at work here. First, the ultimate liability resulting from extended service intervals, which are inevitable as noted above, is a far lesser burden to companies not subject to U.S. liability laws. Second, this proposal favors manufacturers, such as Zodiac, who are already producing extended service interval rafts. They have already made the investment in vacuum packing equipment and have already equipped their service stations for this. While I happen to think that vacuum packing is a good idea for the added protection from the elements it offers, it certainly isn't a necessity from a safety standpoint. Vacuum packing itself does not make a better raft. However, other manufacturers will either be forced to make added investments for this equipment or to extend service intervals without doing so, a potential bigger risk for the consumer.
Third, it favors manufacturers who already operate on reduced margins and who are making up for lean margins by buying up competitors. Zodiac just happens to be in this position, having gobbled up a number of smaller life rafts companies. In rafts they now own Autoflug (Germany), Avon (UK), BFA (Germany), Bombard (France), ProSaver (Germany), and DBC Marine Safety (Canada). They also own Aerazur (France) and Air Cruisers (U.S.) who produce aviation rafts. Further consolidation and the possible destruction of U.S. life raft manufacturers is not in the best interest of consumers. The U.S. is currently a leader in manufacturing high quality leisure life rafts for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that they are not required by law and the companies are independent. Moreover, industry consolidation almost always leads to less competition and less innovation, the consumer being the ultimate loser.
The solution, if there is indeed a real problem, is better education of raft owners, not more regulations. If someone can show me the problem is serious, I'll reconsider my position. In the meantime, the manufacturers have the capability to do a far better job educating the consumer and encouraging them to get their raft serviced at appropriate intervals and by trained individuals, the Coast Guard doesn't need to serve as the industry's lackey. Just say no to unjustified regulations.
-- Doug Ritter
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