Recreational Boating Fatalities Fell in 2017: USCG

Operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, machinery failure, and alcohol use were the top five primary contributing factors in fatal 2017 recreational boating accidents.

The U.S. Coast Guard reported May 29 that 2017 recreational boating fatalities nationwide totaled 658, a 6.1 percent decrease from 2016. This was the second-highest number of deaths in the past five years, even though recreational boating injuries fell 9.4 percent year over year, from 2,903 to 2,629, and the total number of accidents fell 3.9 percent, from 4,463 to 4,291.

"Although these lower numbers are encouraging, I ask those who boat to continue to do so responsibly, especially by donning a life jacket," said Capt. Scott Johnson, chief of the Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety at Coast Guard Headquarters. "Wearing a life jacket is the single most important thing you can do to save your life or the life of someone you care about."

The USCG report showed that in 2017 the fatality rate was 5.5 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels -- a 6.8 percent decrease from last year's fatality rate of 5.9 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels. Also in the report:

  • Property damage totaled approximately $46 million.
  • Alcohol continued to be the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents.
  • Operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, machinery failure, and alcohol use were the top five primary contributing factors in accidents.

Johnson also warned boaters about the impacts of alcohol use, citing a case in Connecticut where two inebriated people aboard a 32-foot boat were killed when their boat crashed into a breakwater. "Alcohol was the leading factor in 19 percent of deaths," he said. "It is also a completely preventable factor – never boat under the influence."

Where the cause of death was known, 76 percent of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims with reported life jacket usage, 84.5 percent were not wearing a life jacket. "As a career Coast Guardsman, where it is my mission to prevent accidents and save lives on the water, it is extremely frustrating to see cases where something as simple as wearing a life jacket would have made the difference for life over death for 84.5 percent of the drowning cases," Johnson said.

Also, where boating instruction was known, 81 percent of deaths occurred on vessels where the operator had not received boating safety instruction. The most common vessel types involved in reported accidents were open motorboats, personal watercraft, and cabin motorboats. The vessel types with the highest number of fatalities were on open motorboats, kayaks, and personal watercraft.

The Coast Guard also reminded boaters to boat responsibly on the water: Wear a life jacket, take a boating safety course, attach the engine cut-off switch, get a free vessel safety check, and boat sober.

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