Why boaters aren’t wearing PFDs
There are still too many deaths on the water. Now we know why
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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