Safer Boating

Photo boat collision aftermathPhoto: George Stafford

The U.S. Coast Guard just came out with their annual statistics on fatalities, injuries, and accidents in the recreational boating world — scintillating reading indeed if you make your living poring over insurance claim files! For those of you who are less interested in combing through 79 pages of graphs, charts, and tables filled with numbers covering every conceivable way someone can come to grief aboard a floating vessel and organized by state, time of day, time of year, body of water, and so on — well, we'll be happy to summarize. The news is good.

Fatalities on recreational boats fell to an all-time low (since recordkeeping began) of 560 in 2013, a one-year decline of 14 percent. Reported injuries also declined to a new low of 2,620, down 12.7 percent from 2012. This continues a long-term downward trend in both statistics, but what’s even more noteworthy, the number of fatalities per 100,000 registered boaters declined dramatically, down to 4.7 from 6.2 in 2012. As the table at right from the Coast Guard report shows, since at least 1997 boating has been getting safer.

Chart showing Recreational Boating Fatality Rates 1997-2013Source: USCG

That was not always the case. Back in 1973, boating fatalities topped out at 1,750, the most ever reported in a single year. That was two years after the Federal Boat Safety Act had been signed into law by President Nixon. Testimony from Richard Schwartz, the founder of a new and still struggling organization called the Boat Owners Association of the United States, was key to the passage of the legislation. The new law enacted three landmark changes: The Coast Guard now had the authority to regulate manufacturers; a "defect" law now applied to newly manufactured boats; and the Coast Guard was strongly urged to create an Office of Boating Safety. In the years that followed, fatality rates continued to decline, thanks to these changes and a concerted effort on the part of the industry and boating safety organizations to address safety and education.

While most of us spend a lot more time in our cars than on our boats, it is still interesting to note that the fatality rate for passenger vehicles on land in 2011 (the most recent data available) was, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA), 12.6 per 100,000 registered vehicles — versus 5.4 for boats that year. Even when you separate passenger cars from motorcycles and trucks, the fatality rate in 2011 was still 8.9, more than half again the boating rate. The data are not really comparable, so we can't say absolutely that boating is safer than driving, but we can say boating is surprisingly safe and getting more so. That's good news for all of us who spend time on the water. 

— Published: July 2014


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