Lessons Learned – by Pat Carson
Recreational Boating Safety 2022
The United States Coast Guard recently released its Recreational Boating Statistics report for 2022 and the data is somewhat mixed. The report is based off incidents that resulted in at least one of the following criteria: death, disappearance, injury that required medical treatment beyond first aid or damages to the vessel(s) or other property that equaled or exceeded $2,000, or a loss of the vessel. The caveat here is that I imagine that only a small percentage of accidents that result in damage more than $2,000 are actually reported. I assume a majority of boat owners place their insurance deductibles much greater than $2,000 and would not report the loss to their insurance company and risk paying higher premiums. I, like many boat owners I know, have always considered insurance as the nuclear option and only to be used when the loss is so high it cannot be afforded.
Every year the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety compiles statistics on reported recreational boating accidents. These statistics are derived from accident reports filed by the owners and operators of recreational vessels involved in accidents. This report contains statistics on registered recreational vessels and boating accidents during the calendar year 2022. Registered vessels include airboat, auxiliary sailboats, cabin motorboats, canoes, houseboats, inflatable boats, kayaks, open motorboats, personal watercraft, pontoon boats, rafts, rowboats, sailboats and standup paddleboards. Data used to compile the recreational boating accident statistics comes from these main sources: State marine agencies, Federal agencies that include the Coast Guard, National Park Services, Army Corps of Engineers, Forest Service, from the public reported on a CG-3865 Recreational Boating Accident Report form and the news media. The U.S. Coast Guard collects data from all states and territories that have federally approved boat numbering and casualty reporting systems. These include all states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
To save this readership the trouble of digging into the 100 pages or so of government data, charts and graphs, I have taken the liberty to do it for you. Looking for just the summary? Then go to the last page, but I encourage you to keep reading as there are some interesting statistics in this report. The 2022 report reveals that there were 636 boating fatalities nationwide which is down a bit from 2021 and similar to prepandemic levels. Here in California, the reported number of accidents increased more than 19 percent from the prepandemic levels, from 324 in 2019 to 387 in 2022. In 2022 there were 43 boating fatalities in California, an increase of 10 percent from 2019.
In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the accident rates and fatalities soared and approached the 20-year high of 2003. Fortunately, 2021 saw improvement and 2022 approached the somewhat more stable years from 2008.
Comparing 2019 to 2022, the prepandemic to postpandemic years, the total number of accidents decreased by 3.1 percent, 4,040 vs. 4,168 and the number of non-fatally injured victims decreased by 12.2 percent, 2,222 vs. 2,559. There is evidence that boating activity increased significantly during the pandemic given the reports of increased boat sales, insurance policies taken out, insurance claims and calls for towing assistance. With increased activity there is a greater risk of deaths, injuries and accidents. Interestingly, the number of registered vessels did not change appreciably during the pandemic years.
One thing we do know is that alcohol continued to be the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents in 2022, accounting for 88 deaths, or nearly 14 percent of total fatalities.
Reading through the 2022 report we find some interesting statistics:
- The fatality rate was 5.4 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels. This rate represents an increase from 2019’s fatality rate of 5.2 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels.
- Property damage totaled about $62.8 million.
- Operator inattention, operator inexperience, improper lookout, excessive speed and alcohol use ranked as the top five primary contributing factors in accidents.
- Alcohol use, operator inexperience, operator inattention, excessive speed and navigation rules violation ranked as the top five primary contributing factors in fatalities.
Where the cause of death was known, 70 percent of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims with reported life jacket usage, 83 percent were not wearing a life jacket and 80 percent of drowning victims were on vessels less than 21 feet in length. Where boating instruction was known, 74 percent of deaths occurred on vessels where the operator had not received boating safety instruction. In cases where vessel type was known, the vessel types with the highest percentage of deaths were open motorboats (43 percent), kayaks (18 percent), and pontoon boats (8 percent).
The Coast Guard recommends that all boaters take a boating safety course that meets the National Boating Education Standards prior to getting out on the water. It is crucial for boaters to wear a life jacket at all times because it very likely will save your life if you enter the water unexpectedly. Boaters are reminded to make sure that life jackets are serviceable, properly sized and correctly fastened.
Today, recreational boating, relatively speaking, is one of the safest means of recreation in the U.S. and continues to be safer. In 1960, there were 819 boating related fatalities and this increased to a peak of 1,754 in 1974. The fatality rate has decreased from 33.4 percent per 100,000 registered boats in 1960 to a low of 5.2 percent per 100,000 registered boats in 2019. A substantial improvement for several reasons.
- The USCG developed standards related to vessel capacity, safe loading, safe powering, flotation, electrical, fuel and ventilation.
- In the 1980’s, individual states and the USCG enacted intoxicated boating laws and enforcement techniques to reduce impaired boating.
- Many states began mandatory boating education that required boat operators to pass a safe boating course.
- States enacted mandatory life jacket requirements for certain boat types and for children of certain ages.
Although the fatality rate nationally in 2022 was 5.4 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels, California fatality was 6.9 percent in 2022 which is still high but down significantly from the high in 2017 of 8.1 percent. Looking at California’s five-year summary of the historical data it would seem that mandatory boater education has done little if anything to improve the number of accidents or deaths.
The most common vessel types involved in reported accidents were open motorboats, 52.1 percent, personal watercraft, 24.7 percent, cabin motorboats, 7.3 percent, pontoon boats, 6.6 percent and canoe/kayak, 2.8 percent. Vessel types with the highest percentage of deaths were open motorboats, 45.9 percent, canoe/kayak 20.7 percent with pontoon boats and personal watercraft both at 8.5 percent.
The top five accident types in 2022 were collision with another vessel, 26.9 percent, allision with a fixed object, 11.8 percent, flooding, 10.4 percent, grounding, 8.7 percent and falls overboard, 6.4 percent. Operator inattention, operator inexperience, improper lookout, excessive speed and machinery failure ranked as the top five primary contributing factors in accidents. Take note that four of these five primary causes are human factors and not machinery or environment. In fact, nationally, most accidents occurred in protected waters, 89 percent, on calm days with winds less than 12 kts, 87 percent and in daylight with good visibility, 76 percent.
Nearly 13 percent of the accidents involved a vessel that was not in operation at the time, 10 percent occurred while the vessel was engaged in fishing, but 23.9 percent of deaths occurred while fishing. General boating accidents accounted for the largest activity that involved an accident at 62.5 percent and was 54.4 percent of deaths.
How does California stack up? In 2022, there were 493 accidents up from 324 in 2019, 311 reported injuries up from 236, and 39 fatalities the same as 2019. Interesting to also note, 56 percent of the reported boating accidents occurred in the months of June, July and August, 68 percent occurred on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday and 70 percent occurred between 1230 hours and 2030 hours.
Behind The Numbers
Accident reporting as required by federal law under federal regulations requires the operator of any uninspected vessel or a vessel that was operated for recreational purposes to file a Boating Accident Report when, as a result of an occurrence that involves the vessel or its equipment:
- A person dies.
- A person disappears from the vessel under circumstances that indicate death or injury.
- A person is injured and requires medical treatment beyond first aid.
- Damage to vessels and other property totals $2,000 or more.
- There is a complete loss of any vessel.
If the above conditions are met, the federal regulations state that the operator or owner must report their accident to a state reporting authority. The reporting authority can be either the state where the accident occurred, the state in which the vessel was registered, or if the vessel does not have a registration number, the state where the vessel was principally used. The owner must submit the report if the operator is deceased or unable to make the report. The regulations also state the acceptable length of time in which the accident report must be submitted to the reporting authority. Boat operators or owners must submit:
- Accident reports within 48 hours of an occurrence if: a person dies within 24 hours of the occurrence, a person requires medical treatment beyond first aid or a person disappears from the vessel.
- Accident reports within 10 days of an occurrence if there is damage to the vessel/property only. The minimum reporting requirements are set by Federal regulation, but states are allowed to have more stringent requirements. For example, some states have a lower threshold for reporting damage such as California where damage over $500 requires submission of a report.
- Federal Regulations require accident report data to be forwarded to Coast Guard Headquarters within 30 days of receipt by a state or its agent.
California boating accident statistics are compiled under state law requiring a boater who is involved in an accident to file a written accident report with the Division of Boating and Waterways in the case of:
- A person dies.
- A person disappears from the vessel under circumstances that indicate death or injury.
- A person is injured and requires medical treatment beyond first aid.
- Damage to vessels and other property totals $500 or more.
- There is a complete loss of the vessel regardless of value.
- Reports are required to be submitted to the Department of Boating and Waterways within 48 hours of an accident that involves the disappearance of a person or injury beyond first aid and within 24 hours of any accident that results in death. The owner or operator has 10 days to submit a report for any accident that results in property damage, complete loss of vessel or death that occurs more than 24 hours after the accident.
Data on fatal accidents is considered accurate. However, data for non-fatal accidents has a much lower confidence level. Non-fatal accidents are severely under reported as boaters are either unaware of reporting requirements or are unwilling to report. There has been discussion about adjusting numbers to account for non-reporting, but results have not been published yet. The Coast Guard is studying alternate data sources including insurance claims to better gauge the gap between reported and unreported accidents.
A May 2023 analysis of two states using data for years 2015-2018 suggested a significant degree of underreported damages and damage accidents. For every $1 of damage in the Coast Guard’s database, the data suggested that $7.27-$21.77 actually occurred. For every property damage accident in the Coast Guard’s database, the data suggested that 12-21 accidents actually occurred. The data indicated a degree of variability among the two states investigated, which suggests that a wider study would be necessary to understand the full extent of underreporting in the nation. The authors also examined the degree of injury underreporting in one state. They found that for every moderate injury reported, there were likely 30.4 that actually occurred; for every more severe injury, likely 1.65 actually occurred.
Currently 45 of the 50 states have some form of mandatory boating education requirements, but not all vessel operators are required to complete an approved course because they were born before a specific date. At present, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Office of Boating Safety estimates that less than 28 percent of boat operators were subject to some form of boat operator education requirements.
California’s mandatory boater education program began on January 1, 2018 and we are now more than halfway through the phase in period. It will be interesting to see how much of an impact this requirement will have once all boat operators are required to have mandated education in 2025. A wildcard is the boat operators that are exempt from California education: Persons operating a rental vessel, an operator that is not a resident of California and has met their home state requirements if any and a person who is a resident of another country and meets the boat operator requirements of their home country if any. However, in the end, nearly every operator that completes the course is a much more informed and competent boater.
What can we all do to promote safe boating? First, let us determine what unsafe boat operation is. Such behaviors as boating while intoxicated, not wearing a personal flotation device, operating your vessel at a high speed in “no wake” zones, crowded waterways, in restricted visibility, near fixed objects at or near persons in the water are all deemed unsafe. Not being familiar with or understanding the navigation rules, not keeping a proper lookout and being unfamiliar with your particular vessel’s handling characteristics all contribute to unsafe operation. What are the two things we can all do to immediately lower the boating accident rates? – wear your personal flotation device and reduce the use of alcohol while operating a vessel. A recent maritime operations accident analysis reports that 71 percent of human errors were situational awareness related problems. High stress situations can cause distraction or fixation, physical or mental fatigue affects alertness and the desire to get home creates excessive motivation.
Surprisingly, rented vessels in total were only involved in 11.9 percent of all accidents and 9.8 percent of deaths. Personal watercraft and open motorboats account for 14.2 percent of these reported accidents. However, the data is somewhat suspect since the amount of unknown if rented at time of accident is very high at nearly 18 percent.
There is some good news in the data. In 2022 there were only three reported accidents that involved carbon monoxide poisoning and none of these resulted in a death or property damage. Reported CO poisoning has dropped from the five-year high with 10 in 2018, 13 in 2019, 15 in 2020 and eight in 2021 reported. Similarly, there were no reported electrocutions or sudden medical conditions reported as the primary cause of an accident.
Lessons Not Learned
In 2022, the Coast Guard counted 4,040 accidents that involved 636 deaths, 2,222 injuries and approximately $63 million dollars of damage to property as a result of recreational boating accidents. The fatality rate was 5.4 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels. This rate represents a 1.8 percent decrease from the 2021 fatality rate of 5.5 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels. Compared to 2021, the number of accidents decreased 9.0 percent, the number of deaths decreased 3.3 percent and the number of injuries decreased 15.9 percent. Where cause of death was known, 75 percent of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims with reported life jacket usage, 85 percent were not wearing a life jacket. Where length was known, three of every four boaters who drowned were using vessels less than 21 feet in length. Alcohol use is the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents; where the primary cause was known, it was listed as the leading factor in 16 percent of deaths. Where instruction was known, 74 percent of deaths occurred on boats where the operator did not receive boating safety instruction. Only 14 percent of deaths occurred on vessels where the operator had received a nationally-approved boating safety education certificate. There were 173 accidents in which at least one person was struck by a propeller. Collectively, these accidents resulted in 41 deaths and 182 injuries. Operator inattention, operator inexperience, improper lookout, excessive speed and machinery failure ranked as the top five primary contributing factors in accidents.
Where data was known, navigation rules violations were a contributing factor in 50 percent of accidents, 35 percent of deaths and almost 60 percent of injuries. Collisions (with vessels, objects and groundings) were the most frequent first event in accidents, attributing to 55 percent of accidents, 21 percent of deaths and 53 percent of injuries. Where data was known, the most common vessel types involved in reported accidents were open motorboats (47 percent), personal watercraft (18 percent) and cabin motorboats (14 percent.) Where data was known, the vessel types with the highest percentage of deaths were open motorboats (47 percent), kayaks (14 percent) and personal watercraft and pontoons (both 9 percent.) The 11,770,383 recreational vessels registered by the states in 2022 represent a 1.6 percent decrease from last year when 11,957,886 recreational vessels were registered.
Do not become a statistic, boat safe.
Time for me to sit back, enjoy a good glass of port and light up a fine cigar. Until next month please keep those letters coming. If you have a good story to tell, send me an email at email@example.com as I love a good story.