How much of safety is the boater’s responsibility, and how much is enough?

SwampedPhoto-eBy US Coast Guard statistics, in 2008 there were 4784 boating accidents, 3331 injuries (a record low), and 709 deaths. The same sources estimate 83.6 million Americans boating and 12.7 million boats registered at the state level. They speculate that there are between 4 and 25 million canoes, kayaks, etc. not registered. You do the math. Regardless of whether you choose accidents, injuries or deaths for the numerator and boaters or boats for the denominator, the incidence of mayhem is very small. Most of the results will have 7 zeros after the decimal point before you reach a real number in the percentage calculation. Our sport is pretty safe, and we can be very proud of that as industry professionals.

On the other hand, most of the deaths were due to drowning and 90% of the victims were not wearing life jackets. Alcohol use is pretty prevalent in these cases, also. These facts denote some level of stupidity or ignorance among our associates in the sport. The question bothering me is, “How do we know when we have fixed this as well as we reasonably can?”. Even one death or injury is too many for most of us, but it’s going to happen unless we all spend life at home, in bed — and alone (ask Tiger).

In my life rambles, I have taken up flying, snow and water skiing, scuba diving, and several other damn fool pursuits – along with boating. I missed out on bungi jumping, hang gliding, motorcycles, parachuting, surfing and some more. The point is that we humans like to tempt fate and get a rush from it. Paradoxically, those of us that reach old age tend to plan and equip our assaults on these temptations with great care. That’s a big part of the fun, I think. How do we reconcile the tragedy of a family boating accident with our aversion to more and more governmental regulations? Is there a point where we say we have done our best with the rules we have put into play? If so, where is it? Numerically, we look pretty good now.

If you are expecting a concrete answer, go read something else. I am as perplexed as anyone as to the best level of regulation. Voluntary Life Jacket wear is usually in the single digits percentage wise. Most of us blessed with multi digit IQs put them on when we feel the situation dictates. Attempts to create higher voluntary wear rates yield a couple of points at most. Tests of legally mandatory wear kicks us up to the 75% range. Is that what we need? What would the rebellious 25% do with their boating – after incarceration?

One of the big barriers to Life Jacket wear for most of us is their discomfort and nuisance contribution. Some of my law enforcement boating friends rightly point out that mandatory wear would vastly increase the market for high end, more comfortable units. Boat dealers might even profit from this new market. Certainly recent jacket manufacturer efforts are a great improvement, and a bigger market would rapidly bring more. What effect would mandatory wear vs. only having them aboard have on people taking up boating? I suspect it would greatly diminish the charm of the $3.95 big box store special.

I think I would gladly wear any jacket that makes me appear “cool” plus at least 20 years younger and 20 pounds lighter. I might even wear two of them.

The arguments are similar with mandatory training. I think most marine trade organizations are beginning to accept it – with varying degrees of good humor. It is arguably good for boating interest and perceived expertise.

Boating under the influence is pretty much accepted now as a no-no and worthy of legal prohibition. I’m not naming any names, but I suspect a lot of us have tried it and would agree.

Ignition kill switches have been with us for some time. Even the most benign variations can get you in trouble if activated at the wrong time. There are probably more “right times” than wrong ones, but I’m not sure. I know I have smacked the dock a couple of time with a dead stick landing when I forgot that I had it on and jumped for a fender. I’ve also been happy to have it when the going got really hairy.

Cages on propellers seem ludicrous to me with their giant intrusions into efforts at laminar flow. There are still folks pushing them, though.

We certainly don’t need to impose negatives as we try to exit this economic dessert, but we don’t need fatalities either. Boating will make the news way ahead of auto catastrophe.

Any pithy observations from the readership?

About John Underwood

John Underwood currently serves on the National Boating Safety Advisory Council for the US Coast Guard. He is past chairman of the Marine Retailers Association of America. He owned Lockwood Marine for 20 years. For more info, click Contributors on the main menu.

3 thoughts on “How much of safety is the boater’s responsibility, and how much is enough?

  1. Let’s hope the key answer is individual responsibility and not a proliferation of government mandates. These mandates seem to be the “in” thing right now and i often feel like reverting to “rebel” status (sorta like our 18th century patriots) and “take to the hills” in protest.
    Best to all, Ed Lofgren

  2. John

    In my new book ” Idiot Proofing the World” (just kidding) I point out how every time an accident, tragedy, or just plain stupidity occurs we lose a personal freedom because some idiot, (probably related to someone in a accident, tragedy or stupidity, thinks we need to pass a new law for it. We can always be smarter and better prepared for boating, but the times where I have seen stupidity and especially arrogance cause the problem, well out weigh any reason for the loss of another personal freedom. I like the freedom of not wearing a life jacket, it reminds me of those beautiful summer days and joy of my youth, the reason WE became boaters in the first place. Yes there are those times where common sense dictates whereing a pfd, but why don’t we make the individual responsible for himself again, the way the world use be. I am sick of the stupid people of the world (and their legislating relatives)spoiling our life experiences. Why not make boater education courses mandatory, something most (about 90%)of boaters could definitely benefit from. At the very least it would make for more pleasant boating experience. No more muttering to yourself about some idiot who thinks he has the right of way and when he doesn’t. Our world is shrinking and common sense seems to be with it. While wearing a life jacket is a small decision,
    it represents boating as a whole, let’s not hurry to give away one of the few expressions of personal freedom we seem to have left in the world. Thanks for listening. Barry Malott

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