A new campaign aims to end boating bravado and save lives this summer, writes David Lockwood.
Short of recruiting Elle Macpherson, authorities are struggling with new ways to make lifejackets sexy. The aversion to wearing them stems from misplaced bravado among baby boomer boating males, an ingrained prejudice against donning a bulky jacket (despite new slim-fit designs) and communication problems with non-English-speaking migrants.
NSW Minister for Roads and Ports Duncan Gay has now made it his mission to improve lifejacket lore.
It started with an announcement at the 2012 Sydney Boat show that he was going to "work with the marine industry to boost the wearing of lifejackets and improve servicing of inflatable lifejackets". Now there are some new responses.
According to the Boating Incidents in NSW report for the 10 years to June 30 last year, there was an average 16.7 fatalities a year from boating accidents in the state. Of these deaths, 61.7 per cent were drownings. But 93.2 per cent of victims weren't wearing a lifejacket.
Tough new lifejacket laws were introduced in November 2010 to help prevent boating deaths. But from that point until June 30 last year, there were 52 deaths. Only five of the victims were wearing lifejackets. As authorities are discovering, much to their frustration, lifejackets are useless if they are stowed and not worn, especially in times of heightened risk when conditions can, and do, change quickly.
With 26 people killed in recreational boating incidents last year, it seems ingrained boating habits are hard to fix. Besides the personal tragedy, it is estimated the statistical cost of each fatality is more than $4 million. The state government has a financial incentive to effect change, too.
"Nine out of 10 people who drowned [last year] when boating weren't wearing a lifejacket and the majority of those fatalities were in small boats less than six metres long," Mr Gay said on the eve of this new boating season.
Following an international lifejacket forum, hosted by Transport for NSW in May, local authorities signed the International Lifejacket Wear Principles (see lifejacket wear.com), which recognises the need for common language including using the word "lifejacket". The previously popular term, personal flotation device (or PFD), doesn't have the same connotation.
Education rather than tougher regulation is still considered the best approach to boating safety. Mr Gay is now rolling out a mobile safety campaign to tour popular boat ramps across NSW this summer. Specifically, the idea is to promote and sell lifejackets at ramps.
A lifejacket promotional vehicle will tour popular boating areas and events to raise awareness of the new generation of lifejackets, which are lighter and slimmer.
"If we can't get boaters to take the lifejacket, we'll take the lifejacket to them," Mr Gay said. "We still have work to do to create generational change in the acceptance and use of lifejackets across the boating sector, so this summer we're taking a new approach."
Boaters will have the opportunity to exchange old lifejackets and receive a discount on new-generation versions, which are slim fitting and less restrictive and can be worn for the whole day on board a small boat.
This is important because it's mandatory for children under 12 to wear a lifejacket on board a boat less than 4.8 metres in length. Adults need to wear them when in a small boat at night, and when on the water alone, for example.
At the lifejacket forum, there was also discussion about increasing the device's functionality: fitting pockets, rescue-attachment points, emergency position-indicating radio beacons, satellite phones, VHF marine radio and personal-locator beacons.
Mr Gay said he would initiate a special "loan" lifejacket campaign. "We have now gone out to tender to engage industry experts to get this initiative ready for the summer," he said.
"Lifejackets save lives but they are useless unless you're wearing them, and that's particularly important in small vessels, which are generally less stable and susceptible to capsizing and swamping when compared to larger vessels."
It's now timely to take stock of your lifejackets, self-service the inflatable types, read up on how best to do that, and familiarise yourself with the laws and lore.