Guest editorial: Safety messages slowly sinking in

Lookout! Issue 24, March 2012

But there’s more work to be done
Katie McNabb
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
Safe Boating Advisor Katie McNabb hands a recreational boatie some safety material.

Over summer, boating safety organisations have been out and about, observing behaviour at boat ramps and on the water, handing out information, offering advice, and undertaking surveys to help build a picture of our current recreational boating environment.

Encouragingly, feedback from the agencies involved – which include MNZ’s network of volunteer Safe Boating Advisors, Coastguard volunteers, regional council harbourmasters and their officers, and the Coastguard air patrol – indicates that, overall, things are generally positive.

On the plus side, the agencies are reporting that more boaties are carrying lifejackets and communications equipment, lifejacket wearing is slowly trending up, and we’re seeing behavioural change in action.

Of more concern, though, is that fatalities are still reasonably high – even when balanced against an ever-growing increase in boat ownership and activity. There were 20 recreational boating fatalities in 2011, compared with 14 in 2010 and 24 in 2009. Already in 2012, there have been three deaths in January alone. If we look back over the past five years, we’re averaging about 17 recreational fatalities per year. While our rate per 100,000 boats is no worse than some Australian jurisdictions that have compulsory licensing, we can do better!

Turning to the non-fatal incident reports that are coming in, we are also observing some common trends in the types of incidents reported... grounding, collision, near miss, too fast, too close and capsize.

However, against this background, there is evidence that people are responding to our safety messages. Here’s one with a happy ending:

Just left the beach and started trolling-harling, with the rod in the rod holder. I was drifting using the offshore wind to provide trolling speed when the rod bent double – I had caught a rock. It was pulled out of the rod holder but I could see it floating so rowed towards it. When I got beside the floating rod and leaned over to pick it up the boat flipped and I was suddenly in the water. Using my waterproof hand-held VHF radio attached to my lifejacket I sent out a mayday call. I was rescued 20 minutes later.

All of this information presents the National Pleasure Boat Safety Forum (NPBSF) – made up of 16 water safety organisations that are responsible for New Zealand’s Boating Safety Strategy – with some interesting challenges and opportunities. For example, where and how do we intervene on the accident continuum to prevent a non-injury near-miss from becoming an injury or collision? Or, worse still, a tragic and avoidable loss of life?

This question was being posed long before my arrival at MNZ and I’ve been lucky enough to sit at the forum table where these issues are debated and recommendations made.

Maritime Rule 91 made it compulsory for people to carry lifejackets, and successive media campaigns have nudged the boating public towards carrying and wearing lifejackets and carrying waterproof communications equipment. This is an excellent example of Safety messages slowly sinking in – but there’s more work to be done encouraging behaviour change in boaties in an area of risk that is supported by clear evidence.

At the end of the day though, it’s pretty simple – if you find yourself in the water as the result of an unfortunate set of circumstances, and you can’t float or communicate, then your chances of coming home alive are fairly limited. It doesn’t take a massive change in behaviour to give you (and your nearest and dearest) the best possible chance of coming home in one piece. It’s about basic risk management.

In line with its evidence-based approach to boating safety, the forum recently commissioned some research into boating behaviours and attitudes towards lifejackets and safety equipment for males over 40, who are over-represented in fatality statistics. The results were revealing.

The research told us that when we go boating it’s about shared experiences, conviviality, thinking with the heart and enjoying life. When the research subjects were asked about safety and lifejackets, themes like control and security were evident. Lifejackets and safety equipment were about thinking with the head and fearing the worst. The ongoing challenge for groups like the forum is to find a way to make lifejackets and safety equipment part of the ‘culture’ of boating, in the same way that putting on your seatbelt or maintaining a safe speed are accepted parts of driving on the road.

By now many of you will have seen our latest television commercial “Don’t be a clown. Wear a lifejacket.” The commercial uses humour to encourage skippers and crew to take responsibility for safety. We’ve had plenty of positive feedback about the commercial and even when the feedback has been less positive, it shows that people are talking about the lifejacket issue.

The forum’s Boating Safety Strategy is coming up for review this year, a process that will analyse the 83 recreational boating fatalities that have occurred since 2007. This will provide the opportunity to review again the common causal factors involved in boating accidents and fatalities – which previously have included lack of lifejackets, inability to communicate distress, boating in bad weather and excessive alcohol consumption.

The forum also routinely reviews the issue of licensing and registration of recreational boaties and boats. While on the face of it, the argument for licensing in particular appears attractive, the solution to actually reducing accidents and fatalities is far more simple. For example, if more people followed a few basic seamanship principles, such as wearing lifejackets and keeping a good lookout, we’d probably halve the number of recreational fatalities almost straight away.

It is against this background that the members of the forum are always looking for ways to work together better, to be more efficient and to spend the limited funding we have more effectively.

Through a mix of education, legislation and targeted enforcement, we’re making gains in a number of areas, with forum member organisations committed to helping reduce recreational boating accidents and fatalities.

Organisations like the Coastguard Boating Education Service and Yachting New Zealand, for example, are delivering a range of excellent practical and theory-based courses to New Zealand boaties, and are always looking at ways to get greater participation in boating education.

Regional council harbourmasters are undertaking education and enforcement action out on the water. We’ve seen a significant increase in enforcement action this summer – an essential tool for promoting better behaviour.

Water Safety New Zealand has incorporated agreed sector-wide integrated messaging into its regional workshops and its nationwide swim-to-survive programmes, as well as its very successful Māori, Asian and Pacific Island water safety strategies.

The Accident Compensation Corporation has delivered award-winning boating safety programmes into Polynesian communities in Auckland, followed by expansion into the Wellington region.

And Coastguard New Zealand, one of the most visible organisations out on the water, is leading by example and responding to calls for help and communicating the safe boating message at every opportunity.

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that a major contributing factor to seeing a further reduction in accidents and fatalities, will be if all organisations keep ‘steering the boat in the same direction’ and communicate the integrated safety messages. We all know them: be a responsible skipper, wear lifejackets, carry communications equipment, check the marine weather and avoid alcohol.

Alistair Thomson is a Maritime Safety Inspector (MSI) based in MNZ’s Auckland office. His time is predominantly dedicated to recreational boating safety promotion, but he undertakes commercial vessel inspections from time to time. He is a keen recreational boatie, has a young family and lives in East Auckland.

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