By Mike Milne

Power boaters are used to hearing safe boating messages every spring, as Canadian lakes and rivers thaw and the boating season begins in earnest. Some of them must be listening, because the number of drownings among power boaters has been dropping steadily over the past two decades.

But last June, about a week after Canadian Safe Boating Awareness Week drew to a close — and as Swimming and Water Safety Week began — the Canadian Red Cross took aim at boating safety.

the best way to quickly and effectively cut boating fatalities is to make wearing PFDs (personal flotation devices) or lifejackets mandatory and to enforce those regulations

In a detailed report on boating-related deaths in the two decades leading up to 2010, called The Flotation Report, the Red Cross said that the best way to quickly and effectively cut boating fatalities is to make wearing PFDs (personal flotation devices) or lifejackets mandatory and to enforce those regulations. The report concludes that “research spanning a quarter century supports the need for effective interventions to increase wearing of flotation devices among Canadian boaters” and that “the greatest effectiveness far and away to be legislation requiring wearing, together with enforcement.”

If you’re the kind of boater who thinks reasonable people are capable of making their own decisions about safety, and there are already more than enough regulations on out waterways, relax. It is unlikely that wearing PFDs or lifejackets (the terms are essentially interchangeable) will be made mandatory in Canada any time soon.

CSBC believes that anyone in a watercraft under 6 metres should wear a lifejacket
CSBC believes that anyone in a watercraft under 6 metres should wear a lifejacket

But if you want to better equipped to make good safe boating decisions on your own, major water safety reports and annual drowning reports provide valuable lessons on how to, and how not to, enjoy your time on the water with family and friends and return to home port safely. It may mean wearing a PFD more often.

For a detailed study with clear recommendations, the 118-page Flotation Report was introduced relatively quietly, just weeks after boating industry and boating safety reps visited Parliament Hill and held an industry summit meeting. Safety was on the agenda there along with a long list of other concerns.

Red Cross officials say that so far the report “has been well received by the general public and industry partners alike.” But the organization’s only immediate plans for the report are to present it to the Canadian Safe Boating Council (CSBC) at its annual symposium in Yellowknife, NWT, this month. The CSBC already believes that anyone in a small boat should be wearing a PFD.

While The Flotation Report has voluminous details on boating-related fatalities, it comes to essentially the same conclusion as a 2003 study called Will it Float? backed and released by the CSBC.

96 percent of PWC operators wear PFDs while riding
96 percent of PWC operators wear PFDs while riding

John Gullick — chair of the CSBC and longtime staff at Toronto-based Canadian Power and Sail Squadrons (CPS) — recalls that reaction to that report was swift and largely negative. The boating industry, boating groups, and especially anglers and hunters condemned the proposal.

Barbara Byers, public education director for The Lifesaving Society of Canada and a guiding force behind the 2003 study, confirmed that “it ruffled a few feathers.”

At the time, says Gullick, “Transport Canada . . . didn’t have the appetite” to make PFD wear mandatory. The national Office of Boating Safety is still part of that federal government department and the government agency in charge of boating safety.

Since releasing its 2003 report, though, the CSBC has signed on to an international statement that anyone “on deck while the boat is under way” on any powered and non-powered boats under 6 meters in length (about 20’) should be wearing a lifejacket or PFD. Gillick says that on one of CSBC’s “belief components.” But it sees education, rather than legislation, as the best way of getting people to do that.

It’s now easier than ever to find a PFD that is comfortable and stylish

Changes in the PFD marketplace have helped — including lightweight inflatable PFD vests (legal if being worn) plus PFDs in a broad range of colours and sport-specific styles. It’s now easier than ever to find a PFD that is comfortable and stylish.

In the past decade and a half, the boating industry has also increasingly promoted PFD use — especially in videos and photography — but is no closer to embracing mandatory PFD wear.

Sara Anghel, executive director of National Marine Manufacturers Association Canada, says the leading industry group has traditionally opposed mandatory PFD or lifejacket wear, “in that it has connotations that boating is not a safe thing to do.” On the other hand, she says the association might be open to discussion about making PFD wear mandatory for small craft like canoes and kayaks, or for children (as it is in many U.S. states).

For the most part, says Anghel “we think that education is the key. The more you can educate the boater on how to boat safely, they will.” Recently named as co-chair of the National Recreational Boating Advisory Council, that advises Transport Canada on a wide range of boating policy issues, Anghel is well-positioned to take the education-not-legislation message to the federal bureaucracy.

Even pets should stay safe with specialized flotation devices just for them
Even pets should stay safe with specialized flotation devices just for them

Part of the CSBC, NMMA Canada is spearheading a boating safety initiative of its own this year. After applying last year, the organization received funding from the federal search and rescue secretariat for a mobile phone and device app meant to encourage safe boating. With $312,000 in funding over three years, NMMA Canada is already deep into development mode. Anghel expects that the app will be launched at the Toronto International Boat Show next January and ready for use on the water during the next boating season. The application, she says, will encourage people to use PFDs.

No question, it’s hard to read about deaths in boating, an activity we love and enjoy sharing with family and friends. Nevertheless, the Red Cross Flotation Report, Lifesaving Society’s annual drowning reports, plus other long-term trend reports, hold some positive news.

boatstats

Overall stats show boating is getting safer. As numbers of participants increase drowning rates have declined in the past 20 years. For power boaters, the number of fatalities is down significantly between 1992 and 2001. Still, Lifesaving Society stats show that some kind of boating was a factor in 26 percent of all drowning deaths in the last five-year-period for which information is available (2009-2013). Of those incidents, their stats say more than half involved power boats and about one-quarter were small power boats.

All studies show that the vast majority of drowning victims are male. Red Cross puts the number at 88 percent of all boating victims. Only 12 percent were properly wearing a PFD; in a quarter of the cases, there wasn’t even one on the boat. The proportion of victims wearing PFDs did not change from 1991 to 2010, but at least PFDs were present in slightly more cases.

The Lifesaving Society’s most recent stats show that 82 percent of boaters who drowned were not wearing a PFD. Although 34 percent had a PFD in the boat, they could not put it on. Alcohol consumption was said to be a factor in 39 percent of boating fatalities. Since laws already require PFDs on board and ban drinking, those facts are often cited as evidence against the effectiveness of further legislation.

Advocacy groups say education is more powerful than legislation
Advocacy groups say education is more powerful than legislation

Still, it’s easy to see why safety experts and organizations look to public policy as a possible solution. Statistics in places that have made PFD mandatory — such as the state of Victoria in Australia which made PFD use mandatory in 2005 and has seen PFD use go from 22 to 63 percent. Presumably, future stats will show that lives are being saved.

So what does all this data tell folks who want to go boating, have a great time and live to do it again another day? Two things mainly: don’t drink alcohol before or during boating; purchase a comfortable PFD and wear it. But, aside from legislating making it mandatory, what can be done to encourage PFD wear aboard small boats?

surveys show that 46 percent of power boaters say they wear their PFD while under way. But studies based on actual observation show that wear rates are actually 21 percent

Ironically, says John Gullick, surveys show that 46 percent of power boaters say they wear their PFD while under way. But studies based on actual observation show that wear rates are actually 21 percent. Put another way, close to half of power boaters think they should be wearing PFDs, but fewer than a quarter actually do.

Barbara Byers says she always wears a PFD to model good water safety behaviour when boating with friends. But she’s often taken for a fearful boater or a weak swimmer (she is neither). Mainly, it comes down to attitudes.

Some of the best lessons on effective promotion and PFD use come from what may seem like one of the most unlikely areas. Personal watercraft operators are not generally seen as a cautious or fearful group, but studies show that 96 percent of them wear PFDs. Manufacturers consistently show that PFD use is normal and actively encourage it; legislators make PFD wear advantageous (by reducing required equipment if PFDs are worn); from racers to recreational riders, very few ride without their PFD. Anyone riding a PWC without a PFD would be unusual.

As I have learned personally on several occasions over the years, on several different kinds of boats, when you wind up in the water unexpectedly, it’s much better if you’re wearing a PFD.

Byers, like most safety educators, hopes people will come around. For her, the most compelling notion is that a wearing a PFD or lifejacket is just “a bit of insurance if you get into trouble…. It can buy you time until you are rescued.”

It’s a notion that could help keep boating safer — without getting in the way of any of the fun.

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