Making the wearing of life jackets on recreational boats mandatory for everybody — adults and children alike — can significantly reduce drowning deaths, according to a new Australian study published Monday in the journal Injury Prevention.
This finding has implications for jurisdictions around the world, say the study’s authors. Recreational boaters make up a sizeble proportion of drowning deaths in all high-income countries, they point out. In addition, educational efforts to encourage people to voluntarily wear life jackets while boating have not been shown to reduce drowning deaths.
The findings are of particular interest here in Minnesota where recreational boating is, of course, extremely popular — and where more than a dozen mostly preventable boating-related drownings occur each year.
A ‘before and after’ study
For the study, researchers compared the number of boating-related drowning deaths (as reported by coroners) that occurred in the waters of the Australian state of Victoria (population 5.1 million) before and after passage of a 2005 law making the wearing of life jackets compulsory for all recreational boaters.
Victoria was the second jurisdiction in the world, after the Australian island-state of Tasmania, to implement such a law.
Before the law was passed, Victoria’s regulations required that only children under 10 years of age and people being towed by power vessels (such as water-skiers) wear life jackets. All recreational vessels had to carry sufficient life jackets for every occupant on board, but the jackets did not have to be worn.
That changed under the 2005 law. It required that all people in boats 4.8 meters (15.7 feet) long or smaller — including canoes, kayaks, sailboards and other personal watercraft — wear a life jacket. In addition, those in larger boats, including multi-hull yachts, had to wear a life jacket during times of “heightened risk,” such as at night or during a severe weather warning or when operating a boat alone.
The fine for not following the regulation is hefty: the equivalent of about $140 U.S. dollars.
Fear of being fined was apparently sufficient to persuade many of Victoria’s boaters to change their habits. After the new law went into effect, life-jacket use increased from 22 percent to 63 percent.
Victoria’s “before” regulations are very similar to Minnesota’s. Under current Minnesota law, children under 10 must wear a life jacket while on a boat, as well as people on Jet Skies or other personal watercraft. In addition, all boats — including canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards — must have a readily accessible U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket on board for each person in the boat.
A dramatic drop in deaths
The Australian researchers found that 59 recreational boaters drowned in Victoria in a six-year period before the new law was passed. That compared with 16 deaths in the five-year period after life jackets became mandatory.
The greatest reduction of deaths occurred among people on small powerboats, but a significant fall in deaths was found among those in larger boats with outboard motors and in boats powered by sails.
Further analysis revealed that 9 of the 16 boaters who drowned after the law came into force had not been wearing a life jacket. Among the five who drowned while wearing a life jacket, two were not wearing approved models and one had put on the jacket incorrectly. (Two people’s bodies were never found, so it couldn’t be confirmed if they had or had not been wearing a life jacket.)
During the pre-mandatory-law period, 11 of the 59 people who drowned while boating had been wearing a life jacket when they went into the water. Of those, two were wearing the jackets incorrectly and two were wearing unapproved models.
The most common contributory factor to drowning among life-jacket wearers both before and after the passage of the law was a failure to raise an alarm quickly enough, thus resulting in a delay in search and rescue efforts.
Other factors included being alone on board, drinking alcohol, being a weak swimmer and exposure to cold.
Education alone is insufficient
The authors of the study point to other research — including a study conducted in Washington state — that has demonstrated that educational efforts to encourage people to wear life jackets while boating does little to change habits.
The use of life jackets among boaters in the United States remains extremely low. In 2013, only 22.4 percent of all U.S. boaters wore these safety devices, according to a study funded by the U.S. Coast Guard.
When the users of Jet Skis and other personal watercraft (many states, including Minnesota, have law requiring that this group wear life jackets) are not included, the statistic drops to 9.6 percent.
Among people in open motorboats, the use of life jackets falls even further, to a dismal 4.9 percent.
You can download and read the Australian study on the Injury Prevention website.