As summer begins, you may be thinking of vacation plans—spending time with family and friends, visiting favorite vacation places, and exploring new locations and activities. Many of us can recall heading back to school in the fall and being faced with the inevitable report on “what I did on my summer vacation.” I’m not sure that this is still the norm, with near instantaneous communication about travel and other activities and places visited, but however you report your summer activities, we hope that your report will include happy memories. A key ingredient to a good vacation is staying safe, no matter what you do.
Let’s take boating as an example. Whether you have a sailboat, a power boat, a small skiff, a canoe, a kayak, or a personal watercraft (PWC) it’s likely that you will enjoy many hours on the water. And, while being on the water is fun, there is a degree of personal responsibility that you take for yourself and others, each time you venture out. It’s important to understand and respect the risks that the water—whether lakes, rivers or streams, or the ocean—poses.
Take a look at the data on boating in 2010:
- There were 672 deaths, 3,153 injuries, and approximately $35.5 million in property damage reported to the Coast Guard as a result of recreational boating crashes.
- Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating crashes and is listed as the leading factor in one in five (19%) boating fatalities.
- Operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed, and alcohol rank as the top five primary contributing factors in boating crashes.
- Fewer than 1 in 10 deaths occurred on boats where the operator had taken boating safety instruction.
- Almost three-fourths of all fatal boating accident victims drowned and, of those, 88 percent were not reported as wearing a life jacket.
- Eight out of every ten boaters who drowned were using boats less than 21 feet in length.
As a boater, I have had the opportunity to enjoy many summers on the water. Creating a safe environment on and around the boat has always been a priority. I have seen firsthand what happens when someone does not take this responsibility seriously, endangering themselves and others. I have witnessed several tragic events, all of which were preventable had precautions been taken by the boaters. While working in the emergency department, I saw a young man who had fallen off of a power boat when he and his friends were fooling around. His friends did not immediately realize that he had fallen overboard, and he was struck in the head by the boat’s propeller with tragic results. More recently, on a beautiful sunny day in the area where I have spent the most time boating, a power boat came into the harbor at high speed. As the operator attempted to turn the boat, he lost control. The boat flipped over several times, throwing the passengers into the water, fortunately resulting in relatively minor injuries to the passengers, but major damage to the boat. Fortunately, no other boats were hit on what was a busy Sunday afternoon. In a situation that occurs all too often, a power boat that was being operated by a young man under the influence of alcohol crashed into a rock wall, killing the young man’s friend and injuring two other passengers. The operator’s blood alcohol concentration was four times the legal limit to be considered boating while impaired.
Risks on the water are different from risks on land, something that we often forget. For example, a passenger who is in a car is usually wearing a seatbelt and may also be protected by an airbag. On a boat, there are no seatbelts—both passengers and operators have far less protection than they do in cars. So what does this mean for safety on the water? Basically, it means that there is a high degree of personal responsibility involved in being safe while boating. Taking a boating safety course, for example, can help you to understand the risks and how to prepare for them, whether you are a boat operator or a passenger. Ensuring that passengers of all ages wear personal flotation devices (PFDs) while boating is important—and it’s a legal requirement in many locations. Many states require children under a certain age to wear PFDs, and others require that operators and passengers on personal watercraft wear them. For all PFDs, it’s important to make sure that the ones you are using are Coast Guard-approved. Avoiding alcohol before going out on the water and while boating will decrease the risk of alcohol-impaired crashes and drowning. Becoming familiar with water and weather patterns will help you to navigate safely and to know when to return to shore.
Fortunately, there are many excellent tools and resources available to help you maintain your boating safety knowledge and skills. Many of these educational resources are free or inexpensive and often no further away than your home computer, local library, community center, or boating group. The U.S. Coast Guard website, http://www.uscgboating.org/, is one of the most comprehensive resources on boating and water safety and it’s a great place to get started. You will find links to their Boating Safety Resource Center and many online boating safety training courses. You’ll also find helpful information about life vests (PFDs), pointers about keeping kids and passengers safe while boating, vessel safety checks, and many other topics that will be useful and informative.
In addition, the USCG site provides links to other boating and water safety organizations that have additional training and information resources. The Boating Safety Resource Center website (http://www.uscgboating.org/state_boating_laws.aspx) documents federal and state laws and regulations so you can easily find out about your own state’s boating regulations and requirements and those of states you may be visiting. For example, did you know that in many states “boating under the influence” (BUI) is judged to be the equivalent of operating a motor vehicle while impaired? If you are found to be BUI—which poses a risk for yourself and others on the water—it may affect your driving record, your motor vehicle license, and your automobile insurance coverage. In some states, routine patrols on the water seek out boaters who are under the influence of alcohol, who do not have sufficient safety equipment (usually PFDs) on their boats, or who are reckless in their boat operation.
These resources can help you prepare for a safe season on the water. When you write your report on your summer vacation, I hope that you can say (or tweet) “I had safe and fun boating experiences this summer.” The care you take to understand boating and water safety will go a long way toward ensuring that the memories you build will be happy ones.