Why boaters aren’t wearing PFDs

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.

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