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Booze and boating on the decline; OPP credits enforcement, cultural shift

A Toronto Island ferry manoeuvres past several private pleasure craft on Lake Ontario. Ontario Provincial Police are ascribing a decline in alcohol-related boating deaths to more vigorous enforcement and better awareness among Ontario boaters.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Alcohol-related deaths on the water have become increasingly uncommon, the Ontario Provincial Police says, with stiffer penalties and a generational shift being cited for the change.

The numbers – which were released as part of a reminder to stay safe on the long weekend – show that the incidence of impairment in marine fatalities investigated by the OPP dropped in 2013 to a five-year low. Lack of life jackets is a much more common factor in these deaths, prompting an increased police focus on promoting their use. And concerns are being raised that drug use might be replacing alcohol on the water.

Sergeant Peter Leon, the OPP's Central Region media-relations co-ordinator, said Monday that people are starting to understand that there's "an awful lot at stake" when drinking and boating. Besides the danger, impairment on the water can lead to serious legal penalties in Ontario. And a broader shift in social attitudes seems to be occurring as well.

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"I think we're speaking to a generation of new and young boaters that understand the dangers associated with alcohol consumption," said the Orillia-based officer, noting that it took decades for seatbelt compliance to become as pervasive as it now is.

"We have to be hopeful that it doesn't take that many years to see a compliance rate when it comes to boating and impaired operation of a vessel. But I think there is … a generation now where their licences are very valuable to them. It is their means of getting from their home to their cottage to enjoy themselves."

The OPP says it investigated the deaths of 23 people on the province's waters last year. Four of those deaths were deemed to be alcohol-related. That is down from seven alcohol-related deaths each of the two previous years and a figure in the low teens for the two years before that. The overall number of deaths for all of those years was not immediately available, though, meaning that the rate of marine fatalities related to alcohol is not clear.

Andrew Murie, chief executive officer of the anti-drunk-driving group MADD, cautioned that the drop might prove to be obscuring a rise in drug use among some boaters.

"We're now seeing incidents of cannabis use and driving in especially the young age bracket actually surpassing now alcohol and driving," he said. "The 16– to 24-year-old group, they've switched from alcohol to marijuana. It's less detectable. So we don't know if they're doing that on the waterways."

Another risk factor is that the drop in alcohol-related incidents in Ontario has not been matched by more common use of life jackets or personal flotation devices (PFDs). Over the last five years, the OPP says, about 80 per cent of people killed on the water were not wearing their safety gear or were wearing it improperly. The rate last year was even higher, with 20 of 23 fatalities not wearing a life jacket or PFD.

Sgt. Leon said that police out on the water are making a more concerted effort to remind boaters to wear their safety gear. And he thinks it's working.

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"By law you have to have a PFD on the vessel," he said. "But … we're actually seeing a lot of people now wearing them, as opposed to saying 'yep, here they are, underneath the seat.' "

Sergeant Ian McNeill, RCMP marine co-ordinator for the Ontario division, said that, anecdotally, he has been noticing the same trend.

"I think there's much more awareness," he said Sunday from a lake near Minden, Ont. "As we speak … I've seen a couple of canoes gone by and I've seen adults and children wearing the life jacket in the canoe. I think, yeah, I definitely see more of that happening than I used to see in the past."

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