The lifejacket challenge

With the official start to the holiday season just getting underway, many people will be out enjoying the water for the next few months. And once again, we have the issue of people not wearing lifejackets. Despite results from a 16 year study showing that in Canada alone, boating accounted for almost 3,000 deaths (or about 180 a year), about 40% of Canadians admit to not wearing one when out on the water. Even more troubling is that according to the Canadian Red Cross, about 80% of those involved in boating fatalities were not wearing a flotation device.

So what’s going on here? I’d hazard a guess and suggest that, just like many similar behaviour change issues, many of us are likely aware of the risks in some way, yet for a combination of reasons, we’re not doing something that could keep us safe. Perhaps we’re put off by how uncomfortable they might be on a hot day, or perhaps we think we’re a strong enough swimmer so we won’t need them. Or given that boating is typically a social occasion, it’s more likely the influence of others that has the greatest influence on our behaviour. If everyone around us isn’t doing it, or if we’re told we don’t need to wear one by the boat owner, or if we feel we look dorky in front of others, these are all getting in the way of something that keeps us all safe. Finally, unlike seat belts, we’re not required to wear one – although mandating it through law would not be the end of the issue.

So we have a challenge.

Not surprisingly, the frustration from law enforcement agencies, Canadian Coastguard and the Red Cross is evident year after year. Despite repeatedly telling people about the dangers, many people are choosing not to wear them.

But simply telling people why they should wear them isn’t enough (just look at the 389 comments in this article to see how people react when they feel they are being “told” what to do). We need to shift beyond awareness, and identify more powerful ways to influence behaviour, whether through the surrounding environment, policy, or other forces that focus on going with the flow and nudging people, rather than telling them what to do. Unless we get at the core of human decision-making and better understand the reasons why we do the things we do, nothing much is likely to change.

So to start the ball rolling, here’s 6 quick thought-starters;

  1. Introduce a new law mandating the wearing of lifejackets by children. There’s a growing feeling that Ottawa may mandate the wearing of life jackets out on the water. This would of course help, although it’s likely some Canadians may talk of a “nanny-state”, feeling that the government is going too far in telling them what to do. So if opposition was too strong and this was shot down, a new law could focus on children under 12. For this approach, we can take inspiration from Malcolm Gladwell’s story on how the US – after a decade of seatbelt awareness campaigns and very little success – introduced a law requiring all children to wear a seatbelt. While Americans were also opposed to the Government telling adults what to do, no-one could reasonably oppose a law that protected children. As Gladwell outlines, it was the introduction of this new regulation that finally changed behaviour. Little Johnny, all snug and safe in the backseat, started asking mom and dad why they weren’t wearing their seatbelt. After years of frustration, this social effect trickled through society – and very quickly, wearing seatbelts became normal in the US.
  2. Employ the social norms approach. We all know we can’t help but be influenced by what others do. We follow the herd. So rather than focusing on the 40 per cent who don’t wear their life jackets, let’s celebrate the 60 per cent who do. Communicated in an engaging and creative way, this message could start a slow cultural shift where the wearing of lifejackets becomes the norm. In fact, this should be a larger focus in all public communication around the issue. As with efforts to get young people to vote, the last thing you want to do is talk about how many people aren’t voting – this just reinforces the fact that not doing it is normal. The only exception is with the reporting of actual injuries or deaths. News bulletins should continue to conclude these reports with an update on whether the person was wearing a lifejacket or not (just as we do with the reporting of road fatalities and the wearing of seatbelts).
  3. Normalize lifejackets by linking them to the Canadian identity. Just as the lakes and rivers are an important part of the Canadian identity, why not position the life jacket as a part of this rugged outdoor heritage, rather than something separate. Campaigns launched just prior to Canada Day could link to this strong sense of independence and national pride – and powerful and nostalgic imagery could feature the Canadian Navy, Coastguard or historic footage of Canadians out on the water wearing lifejackets. This makes the actual moment of wearing a lifejacket more magical – which is especially important since we struggle to think long-term about the benefits.
  4. Focus on boat owners. It’s likely that boat owners have the ability to influence what happens on a boat more than anyone else. So targeted messaging could focus on owners as the key influencers of behaviour.
  5. Prime the market. Each year, conduct surveys prior to the launch of any safety campaigns. While this helps benchmark overall key behavioural triggers (e.g. what percentage of Canadians do you think wear life jackets?), these surveys would also act as a primer with the target audience. Studies have shown the influence surveys can have on our decision-making process.
  6. Reinforce positive behaviour and encourage social norms with fun incentives. Just like the successful Speed Camera Lottery, launch a program that offers up a chance to win a percentage of boating fines collected through the summer. Any groups out on the water all wearing life jackets would have a chance to win – just by being spotted by the Canadian Coast Guard or other law enforcement agencies.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg, and clearly a combination of ideas, strategies and community participation is needed. What do you think?  I’d love to hear your ideas? How can we use our understanding of human behaviour to change what we do.

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