Drowning in simple-mindedness

Every accidental death raises the same simple-minded cry

Drowning in a sea of simple-mindednessIn 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.

I might add in passing that such a law would be ludicrously unenforceable: with as many as three million lakes, several hundred thousand rivers, and thousands of miles of coastline, most Canadian boaters will go their whole lives without seeing a police boat. You would think, then, that the spokesman for the federal minister of transport would have given the back of his hand to the Star when it called him for comment. Instead, he said, “This may be something we would review in the future,” which the Star claimed meant the department was “considering” the idea.

And why not? The same ministry is in the throes of trying to force every one of Canada’s eight million power-boat users into obtaining a licence. A month away from the Sept. 15 deadline, just 1.5 million have done so, though the licence itself is farcically easy to obtain—you can get one over the Internet, provided you get a buddy to act as “proctor” for your “exam.” Unnecessary, unenforceable, and hugely unsubscribed: its only virtue is that it will give transport bureaucrats something to do. Perhaps it will keep them from drafting life-jacket legislation.

Or perhaps not. And if it’s not life jackets this time, it will be something else the next: every accidental death, no matter how freakish, raises the same simple-minded cry. Helmets for tobogganists! Child seats for 12-year-olds! Bubble wrap for cats!

So I think it’s time a line was drawn. I have no intention of obtaining any accursed “pleasure craft operator card.” When the police stop me, halfway down the lake, in my seven-horsepower Grumman, I will insist on being fined, which fine I will refuse to pay. And when my case is heard, I will appeal, not to the freedom of speech or religion, but to the sacred and inalienable right to be left the hell alone.