In a typical year, somewhere around 450 Canadians will die by drowning. As it happened, in the ﬁrst week of August this year, eight Canadians drowned—about the number one would expect in any given week, except that, on this particular week, all the victims met their end in Ontario. Or more precisely, within the catchment area of the Toronto Star.
In an instant, an entirely probable series of tragic accidents was transformed into an epidemic, with a single cause and a universal remedy. “Drownings prompt calls to reform boating laws,” the paper’s front page headline blared. “A shocking spate of drownings on Ontario’s lakes and rivers,” the story reported, “has ofﬁcials demanding all boaters be required to wear life jackets.”
Of course, the drownings themselves “prompted” no such demands. The prompting was all the Star’s. Moreover, as the story airily conceded, “not all these deaths involved boats.” No, indeed. Three of the dead drowned while cliff-jumping at Moon River Falls. Two more died trying to save a little girl down the river at Bala Falls. Note the addresses.
Of the three boating deaths, one involved a tunnel-hull speedboat that, as the same story reported, “was travelling at high speed when it cartwheeled end over end.” The driver died in hospital. The second was at least a drowning: the victim, whose dinghy capsized, was reportedly a non-swimmer. The third was a man, also a weak swimmer, who went canoeing with a friend sometime after midnight. Again, I’ll quote the Star story: “Police believe alcohol was involved.”
To most readers, the lessons to be drawn from this catalogue of misfortune might be apparent. Don’t jump into waterfalls. Don’t go sailing if you can’t swim. Don’t get into a canoe drunk after dark. To the Star, the only appropriate response is federal legislation requiring all of Canada’s estimated 10 million boaters to wear a life jacket at all times.
The Star’s leap to judgment is all the more bizarre when you look at the broader picture. Contrary to the story’s premise, Canada’s lakes and rivers have not suddenly turned into foaming maelstroms of death. According to ﬁgures compiled by the Lifesaving Society, the number of drownings nationwide has been falling steadily for the past two decades: from 683 in 1990 to 433 in 2004 (though it spiked back to 492 in 2005, the last year for which it has ﬁgures). For all we know, 2009 may come in lower still.
About one-third of drowning victims each year are boaters. Of these, 12 per cent or more go to their watery graves wearing their life jackets. So we are looking at 120 or so deaths a year that could conceivably be prevented by such a law. But drill further into the data, and other risk factors come into view.
According to the Lifesaving Society, 60 per cent of boating drownings occur in water that is colder than 10° C. Where the victim’s swimming ability is known, two-thirds are listed as weak or non-swimmers. At least a third of the time, alcohol is involved.
Even allowing for some overlap in these ﬁgures, that suggests the number of preventable drownings among what I’d guess is the vast majority of the boating population—sober, warm-weather swimmers—is somewhere south of 40: about the same number of people, literally, that drown every year in the bathtub.
Presumably the Star does not want a law requiring us to wear a life jacket in the bath. Yet it’s not clear the risk of drowning is any greater for the millions of boaters it would forcibly clap in synthetic foam. Even if we include the drunken non-swimmers who go boating in winter, it’s about one in 70,000.
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