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Our life-jacket laws are archaic and need to be overhauled

Our life-jacket laws are archaic and need to be overhauled
There are various types of PFDs on the market. Here, Jeff Piercey of Port Rexton is wearing what many people consider a ‘regular’ life-jacket. (Submitted by Gord Follett)

This column is an opinion by Gord Follett, former editor of the Newfoundland Sportsman. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

I’ve done it.

Many times, in fact, and as recently as August 2021.

Only twice in eight days that month, mind you, but I’m still guilty.

And yes, I’m lucky to be alive today.

If wearing it had been law, I wouldn’t have done it. But it isn’t. So I did. And I cannot guarantee that it will never happen again.

I’m speaking, of course, about wearing — or not wearing — a life-jacket or personal flotation device (PFD) in a boat.

It’s nothing short of ludicrous that in 2022 it is still not mandatory to wear a life-jacket.

According to Transport Canada, “you are required by law to have a life-jacket or PFD on board for each person on a watercraft.”

That’s the rule. You do not have to wear it.

It’s not just a cushion

It’s wonderful as a cushion to protect your bum on a bumpy ride, so if you, your partner and two pre-teen kids are content with them on the seat or floor of the boat, you’re good to go. Not a problem.

If those officers in a speedy Zodiac wave you down and check for life-jackets, just point to those blue and yellow things piled up in the bow.

Gord Follett is wearing a smaller PFD while trout fishing at Park Lake in Labrador.
Gord Follett wears a smaller PFD while trout fishing at Park Lake in Labrador. (Submitted by Gord Follett)

No worries. No penalties or fines. You are free to continue on your merry little way.

Make sense to any of you out there?

It certainly doesn’t to me, and it hasn’t for the past 20 years that I’ve asked the question, literally dozens of times, and to people I expected would be able to provide me with some kind of sensible answer.

Why, then, isn’t it mandatory for people to wear a life-jacket? I have yet to receive an answer that came anywhere close to satisfying my curiosity.

We have to wear a helmet while riding our quad, or else face a hefty fine, and these days we even have to wear a helmet while riding a side-by-side.

White knuckles on the ride home 

But we are not required to don a life-jacket when we cruise the mighty Atlantic ocean, the massive Grand Lake or any pond, for that matter, where changes in wind direction and speed can happen in seconds and turn that relatively calm body of water into a choppy and challenging ride back to camp.

I’ve been there — white knuckles on the gunwhales and all — praying that when I pulled out of my driveway three days earlier, it wouldn’t be the last time I waved and blew kisses to my family.

So here again I ask any government or safety official to please give us an answer to a few life-saving questions. First, why isn’t it mandatory to wear a life-jacket or PFD in a boat? Second, has there been any discussion or timeframe set as to when legislation will/could be introduced to make it illegal and punishable by law to travel in a boat without wearing a life-jacket or PFD? Finally, what’s the holdup?

I initially had the word “potentially’ in the paragraph above, right between “answer to a few” and ‘life-saving questions.”

I removed it because there’s no “maybe” or “potential” involved here.

Our life-jacket laws are archaic and need to be overhauled
Gord Follett’s late friend, Jim Mansfield, is seen wearing a combination fishing vest and inflatable life-jacket on the Exploits River. (Submitted by Gord Follett)

It’s a fact that hundreds of people across Canada will drown this summer because they were not wearing a life-jacket.

Every year, more than 500 people drown across the country, with 166 of them, on average, boating-related. The Canadian Red Cross says “wearing a life-jacket could eliminate up to 90 percent of all boating-related drownings.”

Ten-year statistics by the Lifesaving Society for Newfoundland and Labrador show the numbers of drowning deaths range from a high of 36 in 2009 to a low of 10 in 2018.

A whopping 93 per cent of these were male, with 39 per cent occurring in the ocean and 38 per cent in ponds and lakes.

One of the many hats worn by local outdoorsman and activist Barry Fordham is vice-president of public relations for the provincial branch of the Lifesaving Society. I recently asked if he felt the mandatory wearing of life-jackets was long overdue, and why such a law is still not on the books.

“I strongly agree that it should be mandatory to wear a life-jacket while on any type of watercraft,” he said. “It’s way past being long overdue. Life-jackets have been proven to save lives.” 

As to why there is no law, he said, “I have no evidence, but in my opinion, a big reason why it still isn’t a law is that there hasn’t been a big enough and concentrated lobby effort. Doesn’t matter what level of government or what the cause is; they aren’t going to do anything unless they are forced to do it.” 

Fordham has sent emails and letters to the Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada about this topic in the past, but did not receive a reply.

If I were a politician looking to champion a cause today, this one would be at the top of my list. Oh, the brownie points I could collect. 

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador




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