Greg Fisher
There is much that we can do as a boating community to improve our own safety

It is always a concern when legislators focus their attention on our great and relatively free Australasian boating lifestyle. The risk is that tougher laws and harsher penalties will not only make it harder to enjoy our time on the water, but they might also discourage others from taking up boating.

Recently, though, I attended a presentation by the Victorian Minister for Roads and Ports, Tim Pallas and had reason to soften my natural caution when it comes to the prospect of any legislation intended to impact on recreational boating. Minister Pallas was giving an overview of a new Bill designed to address safety concerns on Victoria’s waterways, but much of what he said was relevant to recreational boating Australasia-wide.

According to the Minister, while average fatalities have been coming down (a trend that also seems to be emerging in national figures), the number of injuries requiring hospitalisation has been on the rise. Our waterways are also becoming noticeably busier, with congestion now becoming a factor in assessing risks to recreational boaties.

The Minister spoke of other contributing risk factors, including the drought shifting traffic to coastal waters and concentrating remaining boating activities on dwindling inland waterways. He also noted that a new generation was taking to boating and that many do not have the skills or experience of earlier generations. Waterborne hoons were becoming an increasing, though proportionally small threat and, finally, he mentioned that higher power outputs were playing a part in the overall recreational boating risk profile.

The Minister pointed to the above factors as the Victorian Government’s reasoning for introducing a new Bill aimed at making boating safer. Crucially, he also made the following comment: “The question we will be looking at in drafting the new legislation is what it is that constitutes a measured response (my italics).”

And he added: “The Government’s position, based on the review to date, is that we do not need a safety revolution.”

On the face of it, that last comment might seem reason for a collective sigh of relief from boaties worried that their relatively unburdened pastime is about to become the target of oppressive and restrictive legislation. But the Minister then went on to outline a number of measures that might be included in the Bill, among them the possible introduction of a licence demerit points system, increasing fines, the issuing of marine-specific infringement notices and generally relying on applying stiffer enforcement and compliance measures. He also suggested that the Government might implement periodic seaworthy checks, in particular, for “high risk” vessels, such as older craft and those with inboard petrol engines.

As the leading provider of recreational boating insurance throughout Australia and New Zealand, Club Marine is at the forefront of moves to make boating safer and I believe that many of the initiatives presented by the Minister have merit and can result in safer boating.

But I also maintain that common sense and experience play just as big a role in boating safety as the threat of fines and other penalties. There is much that we can do as a boating community to improve our own safety on the water, in the process maybe making ourselves less at risk of new legislation.

For instance – and alarmingly – alcohol continues to be a major factor in serious injury and death. In fact, it was cited as the primary risk factor in a national study conducted by the National Marine Safety Committee. Also, PFD use – or the lack thereof – is a major contributing factor in survivability in major boating incidents in which people find themselves in the water. And dinghies are hugely over-represented in boating fatality figures nationwide, with stability cited as the main contributing factor.

Having listened to Minister Pallas’s presentation and viewed other national safety data, I have to admit that there is some merit in tightening the laws in certain areas. But ultimately it all comes down to us. When you’re out on the water and things turn nasty, a law won’t save you or your crew.

We need to make safety our priority every time we head out on the water. Ultimately lives – and lifestyles – depend on it.

Greg Fisher,
CEO and Publisher,
Club Marine.