Two kids wear life jackets as they sit in a boat.
All too often a fun day out on the water leads to tragedy. Life jacket usage can reduce the likelihood of that happening to you. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

A law requiring recreational boat operators to wear life jackets could reduce boating accident deaths in the United States by 80 percent, according to a new study.

That conclusion is based on an analysis of U.S. Coast Guard data on boating accidents between 2008 and 2011.

During that time, making life jacket use mandatory would likely have led to a 20 percent increase in life jacket use by recreational boaters. The researchers estimated the increased life jacket use would have saved more than 1,700 boaters and more than 1,200 drowning victims.

“The same policy restricted to boats 16- to 30-feet in length would have saved approximately 778 victims,” wrote the study authors, Christelle Viauroux of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Ali Gungor of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Standards Evaluation and Analysis Division.

Watercraft are required to carry life jackets, but many boaters don’t wear them.

The investigators concluded that the odds of dying are 86 percent higher than average if a boating accident involves a canoe or kayak. If more than one vessel is involved in an accident, the odds of dying are 80 percent lower, they said. If a boat operator has more than 100 hours of boating experience, the odds of dying are 34 percent lower than average, the researchers added.

The study was published online recently in the journal Risk Analysis.

The researchers said that a mandatory life jacket law is “a major and controversial policy.” And they said, such a law “cannot be implemented without a thorough investigation of life jacket effectiveness.”

Much of the previous research into how to reduce recreational boating deaths lacked data about life jacket use, and this study corrects that deficiency, the study authors said.