Why boaters aren’t wearing PFDs

There are still too many deaths on the water. Now we know why

By Douglas HunterDouglas Hunter


Political support lacking for mandatory PFDs

So how did it come to pass that the OPP, the Red Cross, and Transport Canada’s own Office of Boating Safety, among other knowledgeable parties, are still calling for mandatory wear, more than seven years later? A February 2004 report from the CSBC’s lifejacket and PFD task force described the ongoing situation nicely. After meeting with senior staff of the Canadian Coast Guard, which apparently equated the PFD issue with the prickly one of gun control, it concluded there was no political will in Ottawa for legislating change unless it was supported by “the large majority of users.” As the task force reported: “The odds of pushing for mandatory wear without the support of major user groups, including anglers, hunters, and cottagers, are extremely long. These groups are well-organized politically and would kill any proposal…unless they support the concept.”

Polling efforts had shown that among boaters, support for mandatory wear was positive but not unanimous. A 2002 Environics poll of recreational boaters conducted for the Office of Boating Safety indicated 59 per cent would support mandatory wear at all times, with another 27 per cent being agreeable to having them worn in certain conditions, such as poor weather or during high-risk activities. The CSBC task force proposed a public advocacy campaign to build a broad consensus among interest groups and organizations that would make regulatory change politically feasible. It hoped such an approach could achieve new legislation within two to three years. “Without these steps,” the task force warned in a press release, “it is our firm belief that all of our work will be for nought.”

Which it was. Any degree of mandatory PFD wear continues to be dead in the water in Canada. Groups such as the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) and the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations (FOCA) have not backed the change. “[The] heavy hand of the law can go too far,” a spokesperson for OFAH told the CBC last May. “We fully support existing rules and regulations to keep boating and keep fishing on the water safe. But we’ve drawn the line at mandatory wearing of PFDs or lifejackets.” Terry Rees, executive director of FOCA, says, “A law is not necessarily going to be the best solution and it requires people to modify their own behaviour. Frankly, we’ve never been given a strong mandate from our membership stating: We want a law that says ‘You must wear a PFD while on a boat.’”

Who’s at risk? Boating accidents cost lives and money

What, then, is the answer? Public education, greater enforcement of regulations to ensure boaters are at least carrying required PFDs, and personal responsibility are typically offered as solutions. After releasing Will It Float? in 2003, the Lifesaving Society suggested that the “wear rate” was still only 20 per cent among Canadian boaters, and that those complying were mostly children and operators of PWCs. (The PFD has also become part of the standard sailing gear for club-based dinghy sailors. Plus, it’s a rare day when you see someone in a sea kayak not wearing a PFD. More cruising sailors and operators of larger powerboats also appear to be sporting inflatable PFDs, as are some anglers.)

While some key boating groups appear to be increasingly wearing PFDs voluntarily, the people most vulnerable to drowning in a boating accident also seem to be the people who aren’t getting the message in sufficient numbers. These people occupy an unholy sweet spot in the Venn diagram of overlapping risk factors. As noted, immersion victims are overwhelmingly male (even though males only make up just over half of all boaters). Two-fifths of victims have some alcohol in their blood, and most of those are legally drunk. (Despite notions that they’re young yahoos, the victims are actually distributed fairly evenly between the ages of 15 and 54.) Victims are mostly in powerboats, the majority of them with outboard engines and less than 5.5 metres long. Thirty-six per cent of victims have been fishing. In contrast, sailors and sailboarders account for just four per cent of all immersion victims, kayakers three per cent, and PWC users one per cent. (PWC users, however, are far more vulnerable to death by trauma, so much so that the 1991-2006 study floated the idea of helmet requirements.) What do these last three groups have in common? They are arguably among the most voluntarily compliant PFD wearers of all. The typical immersion victim is not.

Maybe the best thing to do, in the end, is to consider the issue with a purely utilitarian, calculating eye. On one side we have the hardcore libertarians, who are prone to argue that we should let Darwin’s theory of natural selection cull the less adaptive members of society, and leave the rest of us alone to decide if and when we’ll put on a PFD. No law, they contend, is going to compel a 22- year-old male cottage guest who has consumed six beers to wear a lifejacket when going out in the canoe at two o’clock in the morning.

On the other side is the hard economic fact that the low rate of PFD wear is costing all of us a lot of money. The 1991-2006 study by Transport Canada and the Red Cross proposes an economic impact of $2 million per victim. There is also the expense—and intrusion—of policing to consider. The effectiveness of officer-hours on the water could be improved if police no longer had to stop small vessels to get people to produce PFDs. Having boaters wear them would reduce such inspections to a quick eyeballing, letting officers move on.

If mandatory wear comes, it will likely be for children, as is the case in many American states. But kids are not the most vulnerable group: Children under 15 account for less than four per cent of immersion deaths in the 1991-2006 stats. Women, for that matter, represent only seven per cent. Boating without a PFD, or at least without wearing one, and drowning in the process, remains very much a guy thing. Right now, it’s up to the guys to decide whether they’re going to start wearing one. If they don’t, they may find themselves being told to, whether they want to or not.

This article was originally published on May 1, 2011

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Aug. 31, 2011

11:16 pm

Quite frankly I'm sick to death of well-meaning but ill informed busybodies trying to legislate everything we do. I believe that most boaters are intelligent enough and safety-conscious enough to wear a lifejacket (oops, sorry, a "personal flotation device") when the boating conditions warrant it, to make sure the kids and non-swimmers wear one always, and to know when to just keep the boat tied to the dock. What we don't need is another "mother hen" law to protect us from ourselves. What were those statistics again, an estimated 3000 deaths in boating accidents over a 15 year period? Put in perspective, this is the same as only one death per year in a city the size of Oakville. I'd be willing to bet that at least one person a year dies in Oakville falling off a ladder or a roof. Does this mean we should have laws enforcing ladder safety training and use of ladder safety equipment? The unfortunate death of a boater, to be brutally frank, makes the news in a more spectacular way than other types of accidents, and therefore attracts more public attention. This in turn requires politicians to respond, hence the call for laws such as this. (a similar process is what spawned the long gun registry, a costly boondoggle that did nothing to reduce gun crimes and will no doubt be repealed now that there is a majority government). What we end up with is useless, expensive bureaucracy to oversee and enforce regulations that most thinking people don't need or want. If PFD use becomes mandatory, the occasional non-PFD user will pay a fine that is,in effect, a tax on the individual, and the total of such fines collected won't even come close to recouping the cost of the legislation and its administration. And sadly, 3000 more people will still find a way to get themselves killed in a boat over the next 15 years. Some of them will probably have a pleasure craft operator card and be wearing an approved personal flotation device.


Jul. 26, 2011

5:33 pm

seems to me that they are talking about most of the deaths in question were because of cold water and head trauma, not drowning..a life jacket "may have helped" but really...... to fix this maybe we should be wearing immersion suites and helmets at all times as life jackets don't help with any of the causes of death they quote... i solo wilderness canoe and i wear a life jacket at all times. it makes sense for my activity and risk. to say i should be wearing my life jacket at all times is like saying i should be wearing a helmet at all times....there is a risk we all take stepping outside our home... SW


Jul. 26, 2011

3:54 pm

Very interesting comments concerning the PFD and to wear them or not VS being forced to through legislation issue. Some readers seem very complacent concerning such a life and death issue as falling or being thrown overboard and perhaps being knocked unconscious in the process The list of excuses, large body mass, too uncomfortable and/or too warm to wear, look like a geek, etc all sound so familiar. As a society we have become experts at making excuses for so many deadly habits some of us practice every day. Driving like a jackass in a rush to the cottage, talking/texting while driving, eating a hamburger, or worse, downing a few beers, just to name a few. Wearing a PFD seems like such a simple thing to do to protect your life. I've lived in cottage country near the rideau lakes area for over ten years and hear reports every year of drownings which are preventable.


Jul. 26, 2011

3:11 pm

SummerHaven, I admit I have a bit of a pet peeve about people who, instead of simply providing their views on an article, choose to comment on others' comments, especially if they're denigrating them. CLEARLY, you did not understand what I wrote, despite the painstaking detail. I specifically pointed out that I have never worn a PFD that I didn't find hot and cumbersome. Are you seriously suggesting my experience is inaccurate or invalid? Really?!? Should I have mentioned I don't tolerate heat very well...never have? Should I have to mention I'm a woman with G-cup breasts? What should I have written to convince *you* that what I wrote is indicative of my nearly 50 years of accident-free boating experience in Ontario? And where oh where, sage SummerHaven, will I lock-up 8 life vests in MY boat, given that the only thing that locks is the glove compartment? Am I now expected to have alterations done to my boat, too? ****** This convinces me, more than ever, that too many people fancy themselves experts on everyone else's lives, and would (if they could) dictate not only what everyone else must do, but how they should feel, as well...with no consideration, whatsoever, that others may have different views, different needs, and, dare to suggest it, may be more experienced or more responsible in their actions. The mandatory PFD debate only resembles seat belts if you imagine that "seat belt" means a parka which simultaneously disables the vehicle's air conditioning. If that's what is meant by seat belt, then yes, PFD's are just like seat belts.


Jul. 26, 2011

1:13 pm

I'm amazed at how a hot a topic this is for some people. I wonder if these people get so heated about having to wear a seatbelt in their car? The issue is about public safety, plain and simple. Since people don't always do what is good for themselves, legislation forces them to act more intelligently than they would on their own. Like BayOfIslands, our family also has a water-access cottage, and use our boat primarily for transportation rather than recreation (who can afford the gas these days for a day of skiing or tubing). From the day we started boating, about 15 years ago, we have always insisted that everyone in the boat wear a PFD, from the very youngest to the very oldest. To suggest that a PFD is "UNDENIABLY hot and cumbersome" is an exaggeration to the extreme. The newer PFDs are not hot and cumbersome, even the non-inflatable ones, which you can easily find for less than $80 each (I just bought a name-brand adult PFD for $50 and it was not on-sale). And there's a simple solution to having PFDs stolen ... lock them up when you leave your boat unattended. Aren't your family's lives worth a small investment in safety?


Jul. 26, 2011

11:46 am

Mr. Hunter's assertion that it's costing us $2 million per victim is spurious. It assumes that there is zero cost to search for and rescue an immersion victim who is wearing a PFD and possibly bobbing around in a vast frigid lake. Kindly demonstrate to me how the costs would be significantly lower than if the victim were drowned or succumbed to hypothermia almost immediately due to a personal choice not to wear a PFD. The underlying premise is that all human life is somehow sacred. This is getting into the realm of theology and is open for debate. Look around ... there are 7 billion of us on the planet. There is no shortage of people. If you are so concerned about human life send your money to the famine victims in Africa. That is a choice you can make ... or not. Wearing a life jacket should remain a choice as well!


Jul. 26, 2011

10:18 am

I don't, for one minute, deny that life vests save lives. Absolutely, they do. But I'm in a pickle. You see, I don't boat for recreation. I use a boat to get to and from my island. That is almost always preceded by a long, arduous drive, and backbreaking unloading of the car and loading the boat. To put a finer point on it, I'm very hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable by the time we set off. Typical PFD's are UNDENIABLY-hot and cumbersome. I've never worn one that wasn't. Now...I am the safety queen. When there is a chance that my nearly 50-year-perfect-safe-boating-streak is likely to come to an end (i.e. Inclement weather....which is usually not blisteringly-hot, trips in the black of night...which also are usually not hot), I will typically require everyone on-board to wear a vest. When young chidren are on-board, we all suffer-through wearing vests, so they don't feel set apart. I encourage eveyone who WANTS to wear a vest, to do so. I keep PLENTY on-board. When I'm boating alone, I always wear a vest with the kill switch tether attached. But when the weather's fine, and there are multiple people in the boat, I can't justify the needless discomfort of the current vest models. ****** All that said, I think I will LOSE IT if I hear, one more time, someone push for mandatory legislation, while wearing one of the minimalist, self-inflating PFD's GIVEN TO HIM/HER BY HIS/HER EMPLOYER! I currently have EIGHT life vests in my boat. The last time I checked the price of the smaller, inflatable models, they were at least $250 each. That would be at least $2,000 to replace all my vests with the more comfortable kind. Can i afford to do that? Yes. Can I afford to constantly replace those expensive vests when they're stolen right out of the boat while it sits unattended for weeks at a time? Probably not. I will support mandatory legislation when the technology catches-up. Once vests are not hot and cumbersome, yet still a reasonable price, that is when all legitimate arguments against the legislation will be defeated. I will buy those lighter vests and gladly use them.


Jul. 26, 2011

9:28 am

Well put northernspiderqueen! Seat-belts/PDF;s......both can and do save lives and are equally necessary. This must become law regardless of political interests or public backlash/resistance.


Jul. 26, 2011

8:26 am

It's beyond comprehension--why would this legislation be any different than seat-belt legislation? And look at the reduction in death and injury that has provided. I agree that there is a Darwinian component to the resistance--so what's needed is clearly a number of deaths or serious injuries of high-power, high-profile people to see how *that* part of the herd reacts to being thinned. No surprise that Baird and company are opposed to mandatory PFD legislation--they only "intrude" when it's in their political/ideological interests. It is, however, appalling that FOCA is not yelling loudly for this legislation. I will raise this issue with the local cottage association we belong too.

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