Canada: Should Life-Jackets Be Mandatory in Boats?

Update:

Figures show that the majority of boaters don't wear life-jackets. The figures also show that the vast majority of boating-related deaths happen to males over the age of 15.
Figures show that the majority of boaters don’t wear life-jackets. The figures also show that the vast majority of boating-related deaths happen to males over the age of 15. (Mary Esch/Associated Press)

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By some estimates, making boaters wear their life-jackets could save 100 lives a year in Canada

Recreational boaters across Canada will be taking to the water to have some summer fun this long holiday weekend. Most will have a great time. But chances are that a few of those boaters will drown — their life-jackets unworn.

Current legislation requires recreational boaters to have one life-jacket or personal flotation device (PFD) on board for every person. But they don’t need to be worn.

If seat-belts must be worn in vehicles to keep passengers safe, why wouldn't life-jackets that keep passengers safe also be mandatory? photo by fightyourtickets.ca
If seat-belts must be worn in vehicles to keep passengers safe, why wouldn’t life-jackets be worn that keep passengers safe, also be mandatory? photo by fightyourtickets.ca

It comes as little surprise that the statistics show that the majority of boaters don’t wear life-jackets. The stats also show that the vast majority of people who drown in boating accidents weren’t wearing theirs.

A 20-year study of boating-related deaths released last month by the Canadian Red Cross revealed the extent of the problem:

  • Up to 85 per cent of boating-related deaths could have been prevented by the wearing of a life-jacket or PFD.
  • 77 per cent of boating-related deaths occurred during recreational activities like fishing, power boating and canoeing.
  • Capsizing, falling overboard and swamping were the most frequent incidents that led to a boating fatality.
  • Alcohol was a likely factor in 43 per cent of boating-related deaths among those 15 and over.

The report also found that the overwhelming majority of boating-related deaths involved males. Indigenous Canadians were particularly at risk as life-jacket use in that population was much lower.

The Canadian Safe Boating Council has launched a life-jacket campaign that estimates that if every boater wore a life-jacket, it could save 100 lives a year.

So why isn’t it mandatory for everyone in a canoe, smaller powerboat or sailboat to wear a life-jacket?

Kayla McGuirk tests a life jacket on another Red Cross employee

Red Cross employees demonstrate the proper fitting of a life-jacket. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

It’s not like our lawmakers aren’t on the side of improving boating safety. After all, Canada now requires the operators of all recreational boats with a motor to have a pleasure craft operator card.

The federal government also proposed earlier this year that the crew and all passengers aboard commercial float planes be required to wear inflatable flotation devices.

But in a country where millions head out on a boat each year and scores drown, we leave it to recreational boaters to decide whether they’ll put on that life-jacket or use it as a cushion.

To be sure, an element of carelessness or recklessness was a factor in many of the drowning deaths among boaters. Some were drunk, some headed out in rough weather, some never had any life-jackets in their boat to begin with. Those who want to leave the rules the way they are ask why the entire boating community should have to pay for the sins of a relative few.

So for now, moral suasion remains the general approach in Canada.

Over the Simcoe Day Long Weekend, six people drowned and one man died after a canoe capsized on Ontario's waterways. All of the drowning victims were male and three of them were youths. If you are a passenger being invited for a boat ride, take responsibility for your own safety and insist on wearing a PFD or lifejacket. If the driver of the boat does not have one on board for you, do not go out.
An O.P.P. boat. The O.P.P. have seen too many boaters, who aren’t wearing their life-jackets, drown on the waterways of Ontario.

A few jurisdictions have mandatory wear laws

Most U.S. states mandate the use of life-jackets for children on board smaller boats. Washington state requires life-jackets be worn by all water skiers, anyone being towed and by all boaters on personal watercraft or jet skis, as well as by children 12 and under in small vessels.

The state of Victoria, in Australia, requires all occupants of smaller powerboats, canoes and kayaks to wear a life-jacket when the vessel is underway. A 2014 study found that drowning deaths in the state fell from 59 in the six years before the law to 16 in the five years after.

A city of Calgary bylaw requires everyone on a vessel to wear a life-jacket in Calgary waters, including the Bow and Elbow Rivers.

Commercial fishermen in Nova Scotia need to wear life-jackets while at sea.

But other than that, there is no requirement in Canada for any boater to wear one, and that’s not likely to change any time soon.

“Transport Canada is not proposing mandatory wear of PFDs or life-jackets,” the department said in an email to CBC News on Friday. “The department continues to work with law enforcement and other boating safety partners to promote voluntary approaches to wearing PFDs or life-jackets to raise boating safety awareness.”

‘It starts with the parents’

Rick Caissie, the vice-president of prevention and safety for the Canadian Red Cross, says adults are the key to getting more young people to wear their life-jackets. “It starts with the parents leading by example,” he says.

He would love to see every boater wear a life-jacket. The research shows they save lives.

But Caissie doesn’t think blanket legislation requiring such use for every boater would be the most effective way of doing that.

“Maybe we just target children under this age in a boat under this size,” he told CBC.

“We need to be realistic in our messaging, otherwise there will be resistance.”

Caissie also dismisses the reasons some people give for why they don’t wear theirs: they’re hot, they’re ugly, no one else is wearing one, they don’t look good, or they restrict movement.

He says none of those reasons hold water now, and that the days are long gone when the only available life-jackets were like “giant toilet seats” around people’s heads.

“The industry is really coming to the plate and making [PFDs] cooler, more comfortable, more flexible, so people can continue to paddle.”

“They’re stylish and super comfortable.”

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