Lifejacket education is saving lives

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LIFEJACKET awareness programs in NSW are having a real impact.

Transport for NSW's Lifejacket Retail Partnership program kicks off again this boating season, partnering with industry to promote increased awareness and wearing of modern lifejackets.

Through this retail partnership, Transport for NSW and local boating industry retailers are working together to promote a culture of safer boating.

The Lifejacket Retail Partnership program is focused on building partnerships with key retailers to showcase modern lifejackets to the public. By ‘modern’, Transport for NSW refers to standards-approved lifejackets that have the form, function and comfort to be wearable for the duration of a typical day out in a boat.

Through this partnership, participating retailers have access to a range of boating safety education material to help in-store promotions. This can range from simple flyers to interactive touch screen kiosks which have been installed at a number of retail outlets to help customers find a modern lifejacket to suit their activity, age and body shape.

Since December 2014, more than 60 retailers across NSW have joined the program from Yamba down to Eden, with more retailers looking to come on board. This network is helping drive word-of-mouth communications about modern lifejackets and is contributing to the continuing push to promote increased lifejacket wear rates.

The Retail Partnership program builds on the success of the Old4New mobile lifejacket promotional vehicle which has been making its way around NSW, stopping at key locations to directly showcase new lifejacket designs to the boating public. The mobile team also talk to people about the need for the appropriate care and service of inflatable lifejackets. In NSW, inflatable lifejackets must be serviced every 12 months or at intervals prescribed by the manufacturer.

The Old4New program allows the public to trade in their damaged or old-style lifejackets for new ones at a discount. The Old4New van has now visited over 225 sites across the State and sold over 11,000 modern lifejackets.

Both the Old4New and the Retail Partnership programs are extensions of an ongoing commitment in NSW to a broader public education campaign called Wear a Lifejacket. The campaign aims to overcome outdated ideas around lifejackets and improve wear rates in order to save lives.

Lifejacket wearing quadruples

There is now evidence that these programs are having real impact. 2013/14 saw the best boating safety result in over 20 years and the long-term trend is showing a steady decline in recreational boating fatalities. More than 40% of people on the water are now wearing lifejackets in NSW, which is more than four times the rate recorded in 2007.

While there has been a long-term downward trend in fatality rates going back to the mid 1970s, this trend has recently slowed. Increasing lifejacket wear rates has the potential to cause fatality rates to step down to a new, lower level.

When looking for examples from other sectors of public health and safety, it is easy to see parallels with a couple of key areas of public health and safety.

The Cancer Council was able to declare late last year that Australia was the first country in the world to show an improvement in skin cancer rates, with a reduction in levels of melanoma and non-melanoma in the under-45 age group. This is credited in part to the phenomenal and nationwide education effort to promote sun care. It is through such efforts in raising awareness of the dangers of exposure that the public now treat wearing sun screens as a habit.

There are also lessons to be learnt from the snow ski industry. The wearing of helmets on the ski fields is generally not regulated but wear rates are booming. Sales of helmets have increased by more than 100% over the past 10 years.

The importance of helmets was highlighted in December 2013 when Michael Schumacher had a skiing crash in Méribel. In January 2014, British retailers recorded a huge spike in helmet interest, with one store experiencing a 400% increase in sales. Reports in British media this February revealed that 71% of skiers and snowboarders now wear a helmet. That’s a doubling of the wear rate in five years. The ski industry says that people, especially men, are now coming in who would never have thought to wear a helmet.

And not only are a lot more people willing to pay good money for a helmet, they're not coming in and asking for the cheapest – people want to see the best. And that is for product that retails for between $70 and $300.

Lessons to be learnt

These positive trends in both melanoma and head injury prevention are being achieved through broad collaboration across the public and private sectors. And there are strong parallels and lessons regarding drowning prevention.

There is no doubt that collaboration through unity of effort offers enormous benefits when it comes to behavioural change.

That is why Transport for NSW was delighted to be approached late last year by Coastguard Northern Region in New Zealand who wanted to look at running the Old4New program. Transport for NSW provided the campaign materials and strategies at no cost, and Coast Guard were able to run the program from early November to the end of January.

So lifejacket standards are getting better, manufacturers are making better products and there are now excellent lifejacket styles to suit just about every activity and every body. The public are also demonstrating a readiness to shift behaviour.

Our collective challenge is to break through that tipping point where lifejacket wear becomes normalised, where lifejackets are considered part of your personal kit when going boating. Just like how we apply sunscreen by habit and skiers are choosing to wear helmets. The public understand the message, that such decisions mean there is one less thing to worry about and you can simply enjoy the great outdoors.

For retailers interested in getting involved in the Lifejacket Retail Partnership program, or for more information, please contact the Maritime Management Centre.

This article was orginally published in the October-November issue of Marine Business magazine.

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