Editorial: Lifejacket call not the quick fix it might appear to be

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

New Zealand boaties can count themselves among the world's most fortunate. Not only do they enjoy frequently benign conditions for their pastime but they have to contend with far fewer regulations than their counterparts in most comparable countries. But just as it is foolish to take the weather for granted, so it is unwise to consider the small number of restrictions to be set in stone.

Any increase in drownings in accidents involving small craft will always invite demands for stricter rules. Such is the case with the call by two South Auckland local politicians for the wearing of lifejackets to be compulsory in boats smaller than 6m.

Otara-Papatoetoe Local Board member Tunumafono Ava Fa'amoe and Auckland councillor Alf Filipaina are concerned that drownings are continuing despite a 2008 bylaw requiring lifejackets to be carried for everyone in small boats. The jackets must be worn only when skippers decide dangerous conditions make them necessary. Often, the rule is ignored.

This, combined with other shortcomings, notably the overuse of liquor and the inability to communicate distress, has resulted in a number of high-profile incidents in which lives have been lost. Making the wearing of lifejackets mandatory seems, at first blush, to be an obvious quick-fix.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be the case. So far this year, the Auckland Harbour Master's Office has issued 17 infringement notices to skippers for failing to order the wearing of lifejackets in bad conditions. That points to several things. First, given the widespread flouting of the rule, the number of notices is infinitesimal. That suggests, in turn, that policing the compulsory wearing of lifejackets would be extremely difficult. And any rule that cannot be enforced becomes very quickly the subject of ridicule.

It has been suggested that boaties, after an initial period of opposition, would come to accept lifejackets just as motorists came to regard seatbelts as a help rather than a hindrance. This would make the difficulty of policing irrelevant. But the acceptance of seatbelts hinged on the vast majority of motorists acknowledging them to be a sensible precaution. There is nothing to suggest lifejacket compulsion would be accepted in a similar vein. Indeed, council surveys show that 44 per cent would be strongly opposed to this, while only 35 per cent are strongly in favour.

That situation is unlikely to change if only because the vast majority of the 100,000 boaties in the Auckland region would see compulsion as punishment for the sins of a small minority. And, as Richard Brown of the Auckland Yachting and Boating Association has pointed out, it would be unreasonable to cover all types of small boats, at all times and in all sea conditions. Rigid inflatable boats, for example, float even when tipped upside down. It, therefore, makes sense to continue to rely on the skipper's discretion.

More fundamentally, a small number of high-profile accidents have obscured the actual state of affairs on the country's waters. Since a new recreational safety strategy was introduced in 2007, there has been a 50 per cent reduction in boating fatalities even as the number of boats has increased.

This strategy eschewed stricter regulation in favour of safety awareness campaigns focusing on skipper education. By and large, it has worked well. The responsible use of lifejackets is a core element of this approach.

It may be that this needs to be re-emphasised to skippers, along with the dangers of liquor and the necessity to carry suitable communication equipment and to understand weather warning signs. But what is not needed is a rushed bylaw that is more honoured in the breach than the observance.

- NZ Herald

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