'The challenge is the older people. They don’t see a small fishing boat or a canoe or a kayak as a risk to themselves. On kids, they put life-jackets on, but whether it’s an attitude of ‘It can’t happen to me’ or ‘I’m experienced and I can handle it in an emergency,’ ours is a message that’s definitely hard to sell to the older generation.'

— Sgt. Karen Harrington, OPP marine coordinator

Bridging the generation gap to save lives:
Mandatory life-jackets a hard sell for Ontario Provincial Police

Each year in Ontario, dozens of people will die while boating for recreation. According to the Ontario Provincial Police, which is responsible for patrolling 94,610 square kilometres of inland waterways, just about every one of the 30 or so annual boating deaths recorded in its jurisdiction and the 150 more across Canada could have been prevented.  

That’s because at least one-third of the fatalities will be alcohol-related. And 75 per cent will involve boaters who are not wearing a life-jacket, or personal flotation device (PFD). Often the two will go hand-in-hand.  

The way Sgt. Karen Harrington sees it, all it takes to improve Ontario’s boating fatality record is for every recreational boater to adhere to the “wear a life-jacket and don’t drink and boat” safety message the police have been pushing through its education campaign.  

Sound like common sense? According to Sgt. Harrington, the OPP’s marine coordinator, it’s not that simple. “It’s a generational thing,” she told  

As of July 31, the OPP had investigated 15 boating accidents involving 16 deaths in 2010.  All but two of those accidents involved boats less than six metres long. In fact, three were kayaks and three were canoes. In 2009, all 33 deaths involved small vessels. Overwhelmingly, those who die in boating accidents are over the age of 45.   

And therein lies the problem.  

“People see young people as being the risk-takers,” Sgt. Harrington said. “But what I’ve noticed is that when they are on a personal watercraft, they are wearing the appropriate safety equipment.”  

The most frequent type of accident is people falling overboard

“The challenge is the older people,” the sergeant said. “They don’t see a small fishing boat or a canoe or a kayak as a risk to themselves. On kids, they put life-jackets on, but whether it’s an attitude of ‘It can’t happen to me’ or ‘I’m experienced and I can handle it in an emergency,’ ours is a message that’s definitely hard to sell to the older generation.”  

If the OPP had its way, life-jackets would be mandatory on small vessels. In May 2010, Julian Fantino, then the OPP commissioner, went public with that message, calling on the federal government to make a move in that direction. Right now, there is no law that requires boaters of any age to wear life-jackets, though one for everyone on board is required to be within easy reach.  

“The most frequent type of accident is people falling overboard, or a boat gets swamped or capsizes in poor weather conditions,” Sgt. Harrington said. “Many accidents happen on lakes or rivers where there are not a lot of people around, so the person who has the best opportunity to help you is yourself. If you fall in and you’re wearing a life-jacket, you have a fighting chance of surviving, whether it’s finding your way to safety or waiting to be rescued.”  

The mandatory life-jacket story hit a nerve across Ontario, with reaction pouring in from cyberspace from all sides of the issue.    

“Once again people are looking to the government to mandate common sense,” one boater wrote on CBC’s website. “Sometimes I like to soak up some rays while my boat is under way. I prefer to do this without a PFD on. So, because of other people’s lack of common sense as to who and when PFDs are worn on my boat, I have my freedom to enjoy myself restricted. Like a lot of things, if you don’t know what you’re doing, find someone who does to teach you or don’t do it.”  

'Gee, that wake is going to capsize me, I better grab my PFD'

Another reader wrote: “I wear a PFD religiously as does everyone in my boat. There is no such thing as a deliberate or predictable accident. If you go overboard accidentally, it’s because something went wrong and chances are a PFD is going to keep you afloat while you regain your bearings. When was the last time someone said ‘Gee, that wake is going to capsize me, I better grab my PFD since I’m about to be flung into the water’? Probably the same people who claim that seat-belts shouldn’t be mandatory since you are more likely to survive a crash by being thrown clear of the vehicle.”  

Sgt. Harrington can definitely see parallels between the debate that raged over seat-belts before buckling up became mandatory in Ontario in 1976, and the debate over whether wearing life-jackets should be made mandatory for everyone aboard a small vessel.  

“It will be public opinion that will drive this,” Sgt. Harrington said, adding she doesn’t see mandatory life-jackets any time soon. “We’ll just keep educating the public and getting our safety messages out there.”  

For the first time, the message boards on Ontario’s 400 series highways reminded people heading to cottage country on the Civic Holiday weekend to wear a life jacket while boating. It’s the cottagers and the people who go fishing in small boats that the OPP wants to reach. It’s members of this group, said Sgt. Harrington, who don’t consider themselves to be “boaters.” They see themselves as simply paddling around in a canoe, or enjoying a few beers while fishing in a small vessel — just a bit of recreation and nothing to worry about.  

But police are worried for your safety, so don’t be surprised if the OPP pulls up alongside your boat for a “courtesy check.”  Officers are checking, among other things, that alcohol laws aren’t being broken. The law states that alcohol can only be consumed aboard a boat if the vessel is docked or anchored, and only if the boat is equipped with permanent sleeping quarters and cooking and sanitary facilities. In other words, if you are caught drinking in a canoe or other small vessel, you are breaking the law and will be charged.  

If you’re the driver of a motorized boat, you can lose your driver’s licence for a year if convicted of impaired operation of a vessel by having more than 80 milligrams of alcohol in your blood. The Ignition Interlock Program will also apply when a conviction is registered. The Highway Traffic Act was amended in 2006 to include impaired boating, a move Sgt. Harrington said “makes people think twice about drinking and boating.”  

'I got caught wearing my life-jacket'

Police will also check to ensure all safety equipment, including PFDs and a pumping device, are on board. If a child aboard the boat is wearing a life-jacket, the OPP just might hand him or her a T-shirt with the message “I got caught wearing my life-jacket”. It’s designed both as a reward for being safe and as a reminder to parents and grandparents that wearing a life-jacket can save lives.  

“Hopefully, these children will be the generation to wear them at all times when they grow up,” Sgt. Harrington said. “In the meantime, the kids can have an influence on the adults. Just like they did with seat-belts, because they’ve been taught that it’s for safety. Today, if you forget to buckle up when you start the car, the first ones to speak up and tell you to put your seat-belt on are the kids in the backseat.”  

The OPP marine patrollers — the provincial police has 126 vessels in its fleet — make a point of wearing their PFDs while on the job. In fact, an officer who had come in from a day on the lakes was walking around the office still wearing his marine safety vest. “It was so comfortable, he forgot he had it on until someone pointed it out,” Sgt. Harrington laughed.  

“When we were kids, life jackets were these big bulky things that were hot and choked you around the neck. But today’s PFDs are slimmer, lighter and not so cumbersome to wear. With the prices coming down, there are fewer and fewer reasons why you shouldn’t be wearing one at all times while boating.” — August 2010