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Boating safety

Mandatory life-jackets would save lives, experts say Add to ...

This weekend, many of Canada's eight million boaters will stream from the cities, filling highways across the country as they head to the waters for the unofficial start of summer.

But once they exit cars and enter boats, many will ignore basic safety: loading up on beer but leaving the buoys behind; driving too fast and cutting off other boaters, not bothering to wear life jackets even in the most dangerous conditions.

After a handful of horrific deaths last summer, the federal government announced it would toughen up the tests for people who want a pleasure craft operator's card - colloquially referred to as a "boating licence," although its requirements are less strict than the term implies.

Safety experts and police laud the changes, saying it's part of a long-term trend towards taking boating safety more seriously. But they say the drownings will continue until Canada makes wearing a life jacket mandatory.

At the southern end of Georgian Bay in the heart of Ontario's cottage country on Friday afternoon, most of the boaters plying the channels between the rocky, spruce-covered islands don't have floatation devices on. Provincial police Constables Kris Beatty and Mark Lundy shake their heads as they pull over a small aluminum power boat - they call it a "tippy tin" - and discover the man and woman aboard have floatation devices, as required by law, but didn't bother to put them on.

"Why don't you wear these, just out of curiosity?" Constable Beatty asks.

"That's a good question," the woman says with a shrug. "In March, I do. But in May, I figure I'll just swim. It's not good logic, I know."

The officer's concern is well-founded. A recent Red Cross study covering 15 years of boating deaths in Canada found that of 2,232 people who drowned or died of hypothermia from 1991 to 2006, only 12 per cent were wearing a life jacket properly.

"It seems to me we could eliminate nearly all the drownings if we had a proper mandatory wearing of floatation devices," says Peter Barss, a public health expert who wrote the study. "It's so obvious what needs to be done."

Ontario Provincial Police have publicly called on the federal government for such a law, and last year raised the issue in meetings with Transport Canada. Transport Canada did not respond to The Globe and Mail's request for comment.

But many suspect it is only a matter of time before the rules of the water are upgraded to be as strict as those governing the road. A federal government advisory council is set to discuss life jacket rules this fall.

"At the turn of the last century, you could go into a drugstore and get your driver's licence, then they gradually stepped it up. Now we have graduated licensing," says Constable Gary Gibson of the Toronto police marine unit. "They're just laying the foundation now, getting people used to it."

The number of drowning deaths have decreased in the Australian state of Tasmania in the decade since it enacted mandatory life jacket laws for smaller boats along with stricter licensing requirements. From 2001 to 2010, the island has had 18 deaths, compared to 46 between 1987 and 1999.

A lack of life jackets, of course, isn't the only cause for concern. The Red Cross study showed more than 40 per cent of those who died appeared to have been drinking. Boats also have fewer safe-design requirements than cars. And some people don't know much about the equipment they do have.

Constable Gibson, a 15-year veteran of Toronto's marine unit, tells a story about a man who took friends out on his sailboat without telling them what to do in an emergency: when he fell in the water a few kilometres from shore dressed in nothing but shorts and sunglasses, it took his guests so long to find the radio equipment and call for help that police didn't arrive for 90 minutes. On another occasion, Constable Gibson said a boater he'd pulled over took five minutes to find his fire extinguisher.

Transport Canada changed the standards to ensure those taking the boating test online had to complete Internet training courses first, and rewrote the questions to focus on basic safety principles rather than more complicated marine laws. The government is also changing the questions regularly to ensure old copies of the test aren't available.

Anecdotally, there is evidence the card has helped make boaters more safety conscious, with some who live in cottage country saying they've noticed more people wearing life jackets and fewer drinking alcohol on the water.

"The common feeling was that alcohol and boating went hand in hand," said Ted Rankine of the Canadian Safe Boating Council, who lives on Lake Simcoe. "But I think people are starting to realize that the same social responsibility around drinking and driving extends to the water as well."

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