It’s well documented that the vast majority of fatal drownings (at least 85%) involved persons who weren’t wearing a properly fastened life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD). There’s no question that life jackets are at the top of the list when it comes to saving lives in boating accidents. And, our chance of surviving a boating accident increases exponentially when we wear a lifejacket.
Capsizing, swamping a boat and falling overboard are the most common causes of boating fatalities. Clearly, many people who die by drowning never expected to actually land in the water.
Under Canadian law, all boats are required to carry a lifejacket or PFD for every person on board. This law applies to motor boats and human-powered boats such as canoes and kayaks.
Lifejackets do more than keep weak swimmers from drowning. In high waves, in rapids or when far from shore, even a strong swimmer can drown. Lifejackets are particularly important in cold water, which often creates panic and also causes our body to quickly shut down. When this happens, our breathing and muscle strength can be seriously impacted, and the buoyancy and additional thermal protection provided by a lifejacket can make all the difference until help arrives.
Unfortunately, it’s often not enough that lifejackets are in the boat, if they aren’t easily accessible or close by when needed. The only way to ensure maximum safety in an unexpected boating accident is to actually WEAR the lifejacket.
Yet, most boaters in Canada don’t wear lifejackets while they’re on the water. The Canadian Safe Boating Council estimates that at least 100 lives could be saved every year if every boater wore a PFD or lifejacket.
Certainly, not wearing a life jacket is not the only factor tied to boating fatalities. Careless or reckless boating behaviours, intoxication and heading out in dangerous weather conditions are also frequently linked to boating accidents. However, even in these circumstances, the risk of dying is much lower if the boat occupants are wearing a life jacket.
Given all we know about the importance of wearing a lifejacket to prevent accidental death while boating, the OPP and other boating-safety advocates have suggested that wearing a lifejacket should be mandatory in Canada. In fact, some communities already require that anyone on a boat wears a life-jacket. Everyone in the municipality of Calgary must wear a life jacket while boating and all commercial fishermen in Nova Scotia are required to wear a PFD. And, in the Australian state of Victoria, since the wearing of life jackets for recreational boating became mandatory, the number of drowning deaths dropped substantially, from 59 deaths in the 6 years before the law was enacted, to only 16 deaths in the 5 years following the change in law.
As long as wearing a PFD is optional in Ontario, it’s up to each of us to decide whether we feel the risk of injury exceeds the perceived discomfort of wearing a life jacket. Yet, most of us consider wearing a life jacket as a ‘must’ for our children when we’re on the water, so why not have the same level of safety for ourselves? Let’s do all we can to prevent personal injury while boating this summer and let’s ensure we make it back safely from every trip.