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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

We're missing the boat on regulating death on the water Add to ...

It's a curious reaction, this Conservative attitude toward regulation.

For some items, such as long guns, Conservatives are stridently opposed to any regulation registering them. Ineffective, costly, bureaucratic, an intrusion against personal liberty, an affront to law-abiding owners - these are among the charges levelled against the long-gun registry.

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When it comes to a tiny minority of citizens being required to fill out the long census form, the Conservatives say this requirement invades privacy and should be abolished, another example of ideology trumping good policy.

The decision is foolish, since it erodes the capacity of Statistics Canada to do its work to the best of its ability. A voluntary long-form census will miss certain marginal groups, as almost every leading statistician in the country has complained. Scrapping the mandatory long form was justified by complaints against invasion of privacy, except that the advisory committee on the census did not hear such complaints. Instead, it would appear they were made up by a government that has this ideological thing about intrusive regulations, even when the public interest requires it.

As for boating licences, however, a few well-publicized boating accidents causing death in the dog days of summer, and the government immediately promises more regulations, tighter standards and Lord only knows what else.

Bring on the regulations in one case; end them in another; ease them in still another. Go figure the logic.

The federal recreational boating safety regulations have been a bust since their introduction in 1999. The Department of Transport and the Canadian Coast Guard dreamed them up. Despite giving boat owners a decade to comply, only a minority has done so.

Today, courtesy of some media stories, there is much fuss over preventable deaths in boating accidents. Hundreds of people die on the water each year, we are told, but we don't know how many are actually related to boating accidents. The Transport Department presented the new regulations but doesn't know how many people die in boating-related accidents.

Confusion, therefore, surrounds the whole issue, because people "die on the water" from a variety of causes, including drowning while swimming. In British Columbia, where the media have focused lately on three deaths, it turns out that three people a year have died in boating accidents since 2005. And how many, we wonder, have died from long guns during that same time?

The most common causes of death on the water are failure to wear a life jacket and intoxication. You don't need boating safety courses, a "pleasure craft operator card" that costs $55, new regulations and enforcement of such things as having a 15-metre throw rope in a canoe or ensuring that your sailboat's mast light at night is red and green. Just insist on the two salient points - the life jacket and drinking - and more will be achieved than the operator's card and all that accompanies it.

Anyone who has taken the boat safety exam required for an operator's card immediately understands how almost completely useless it is for safely driving, paddling (sorry, using a "personal propelling device") or sailing a boat. Some of the questions are extremely easy; others are ridiculously hard (as in, under which of four combinations of statutes are the regulations promulgated?). Increasing the number of questions on the test to 50 from 36 is a surefire way of achieving nothing of use.

Some of the questions are for sailboat operators, so aren't relevant for power-boat owners; some are for people in highly congested waterways, so aren't relevant for the guy fishing from a canoe in a back bay of a deserted lake.

It's exactly the same complaint made by the gun owners the Conservatives clutch to their chests: a one-size-fits-all regulation that might conceivably be of some use in inner cities (police chiefs think so) but represents an affront to people in rural areas who actually know about guns. The only sillier idea came from the Liberals, who want every boat owner to be administered the equivalent of a driver's test.

Focusing on two policies already on the books - life jackets and drinking - would do more than more bureaucracy, cost and wasted effort.

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