Why boaters aren’t wearing PFDs

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

By Douglas HunterDouglas Hunter



In December 2010, the Canadian Red Cross Society and Transport Canada’s Office of Boating Safety released a paper chronicling 16 years of recreational boating fatalities in this country. Boating Immersion and Trauma Deaths in Canada scarcely raised a ripple in the media. Maybe the dead of winter is the wrong time of year to put out a comprehensive study of dead boaters; as a media event, the report certainly didn’t attract as much attention as did the dramatic upturn in boating deaths around this time last year—in May and June of 2010. But the report made the strongest case to date for Canada to enact one simple change in boating safety regulations that would unquestionably save lives, regardless of the month: Make people in small vessels actually wear their lifejackets or personal flotation devices (PFDs). Whether Canadians are finally willing to accept that prescription is another matter.

An estimated 3,000 Canadians (probably a low estimate) died in boating mishaps between 1991 and 2006, and although the number of boating deaths each year seems to be declining, recreational boating’s year-by-year share of reported deaths increased over the whole period, from 83 to 88 per cent. The vast majority of those fatalities were “immersion” deaths—drownings or deaths due to cold-water hypothermia—with the rest due to trauma. Boating safety professionals continually stress that simply wearing a PFD could eliminate most of these deaths. The other significant factor in boating deaths is alcohol consumption—since it is also a factor in fatal collisions, not to mention bad decision-making. But PFD wear is the overarching issue because, drunk or sober, people have a much better chance of surviving a mishap if they have one on before they go into the water. At a Toronto event launching National Safe Boating Week in May 2010, Ontario Provincial Police Staff Sgt. Chris Whaley told CBC News, “Eighty-five per cent of victims, had they been wearing their lifejackets, would have survived. My question is, what are people waiting for?”

The 2010 report recommended that boaters in all vessels not at anchor or at a dock be required to wear (rather than just carry on board) a lifejacket or a PFD. That recommendation goes beyond what boating safety advocates have been espousing for a number of years. As Sgt. Karen Harrington, marine programs coordinator for the OPP, says: “Is it unreasonable to say it’s time for mandatory wear of PFDs in vessels less than six metres while they’re under way? Because that’s where people are dying.”

Police fight for compulsory PFDs

The OPP has been calling for the mandatory wearing of PFDs in small craft for several years now. The force’s marine patrols are well known to recreational boaters, including cottagers, as officers flag down (with little apology for “profiling”) the small, open powerboats that tend to generate a disproportionate number of fatalities. In December 2009, then-commissioner Julian Fantino and Deputy Commissioner Larry Beechey met with John Baird, then-federal transport minister, to make the case for mandatory PFD wear on recreational vessels—as marine safety is a federal responsibility. The request went nowhere, and at the kickoff to National Safe Boating Week last May, Fantino reiterated his police force’s call for mandatory wear. Staff Sgt. Chris Whaley said: “I think the legislation is inevitable.”

But legislation seemed—and seems—far from inevitable. A spokesperson for Minister Baird told CBC at the time that there were no plans to change the law, saying the government would “continue to work with law enforcement and other boating safety partners to advocate voluntary approaches to wearing lifejackets.”

If the past is any guide, we will likely see about 30 deaths in recreational boating accidents in Ontario this summer, and many of those will happen at cottages; last year, 28 lives were lost in 26 incidents investigated by the . (“Losing 28 people to a recreational activity,” says Sgt. Harrington, in case it needs clarifying, “is not good.”) The 2010 deaths reflected the time-worn pattern. Most victims are male (as were all 28 in Ontario last year); are travelling in small, open boats; and either don’t have a PFD with them or have one but aren’t wearing it when something goes wrong. Only 12 per cent of recreational boaters who were lost to immersion deaths between 1991 and 2006 were wearing one correctly. (A further three per cent died wearing them incorrectly.)

Canada behind US in boating safety

The raw numbers are unsettling enough; it may come as an even bigger surprise to most Canadians that we have fallen far behind our American neighbours in mandating some level of PFD wear by recreational boaters. Virtually every US state has legislation in this regard. These laws commonly require that PFDs be worn at least by children on some craft. Some states require PFDs to be worn by everyone afloat on certain classes of river. Closer to Ontario, all eight Great Lakes states require PFD wear on a personal watercraft (PWC), and several have additional requirements for PFD wear when being towed behind a vessel. Seven of eight require children on boats to wear PFDs at least some of the time. Pennsylvania adds sailboards to the mix. New York also requires everyone in a vessel less than 21 feet long to wear a PFD between Nov. 1 and May 1, in recognition of the dangers of hypothermia.

By contrast, PFD wear is only encouraged, heartily, in Canada. Several requirements for cumbersome safety equipment for pedal boats, watercycles, sailboards, and PWCs can be waived if everyone on board is wearing one. Last year, Transport Canada modified regulations to require PFDs to be readily accessible (in addition to having them on board), but we otherwise lack minimum standards of wear, most conspicuously for children of any age. The law only requires there to be an approved lifejacket or PFD of appropriate size for every person on board.

The puzzle is why Canada, the supposed land of peace, order, and good government, has failed utterly to keep up with its neighbour. In fact I’ve had Canadian opponents of even limited mandatory wear for adults ask me if they should “also start dressing in bubble wrap and wearing a helmet while driving a car.” Opponents typically champion voluntary wear. Voluntary wear, however, is not getting the job done. The advocates of mandatory PFD wear like to use the example of seat belts. People didn’t buckle up voluntarily, so society finally made wearing seat belts mandatory to reduce the carnage on our roads. The proportion of non-PFD wear among boaters in Canada is generally thought to exceed 80 per cent.

And the unofficial rule that bad things happen when you don’t think they will holds even more true when alcohol’s involved. Intoxication makes you careless: less likely to wear a PFD and more likely to get in trouble. Simply having a PFD stored on board is not going to do you much good if you are dumped unexpectedly into the water, especially if the water is cold and you’ve had a drink or two. Real-life exercises have demonstrated the difficulty people have, even if sober, with locating and putting on a PFD in an emergency—tasks that get harder with alcohol. The chances of survival for someone, sober or drunk, in a boat that’s been in a serious accident, drop dramatically if he or she is not wearing a PFD. What’s particularly sobering is that at least 19 per cent of the 1991–2006 victims died within 50 metres of shore and should have been able to swim to safety had they been wearing a PFD.

The argument that resistance to PFD wear has something to do with the devices being ugly or uncomfortable doesn’t hold water, either. There are currently plenty of PFDs available in appealing colours and patterns; and there are several very comfortable styles, including the inflatable PFD, which is particularly unobtrusive (although not legally considered a PFD for all vessel types). A decade ago, there was real momentum to enact some level of American-style legislation enforcing mandatory wear in Canada. The Lifesaving Society had advocated mandatory wear back in 1996 for all vessels less than 5.5 metres long without a cabin, a cause that was taken up by the Canadian Safe Boating Council. In 2003 the CSBC—an umbrella group of boating and water-safety organizations, publications (including Cottage Life), marine industry members, police forces, and government ministries such as Parks Canada and Transport Canada—released a 287-page report called Will It Float? that advocated some level of mandatory wear.

The report included a poll of 1,000 Canadians in the general population; it indicated overwhelming support for mandatory wear in various classes of vessel under six metres in length. Opposition to any mandatory wear ranged from just five to seven per cent depending on vessel type. Few thought the law should be limited to children 12 and under: Two per cent thought only riders 12 and under should have to wear a PFD while on a PWC; nine per cent thought only that group of children should be forced to wear one on a runabout or cruiser. Responses for other types of vessels fell somewhere in between. The Ontario Sailing Association got behind the issue and called for mandatory PFD wear in all vessels less than six metres in length. Changing the law seemed a matter of letting the legislative process run its natural course.

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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