Boating safety doesn't happen by accident

Memorial Day marked the unofficial beginning of boating season in Maryland and elsewhere. Every weekend for the next few months, thousands of people will be out on the water across the state whether it’s Deep Creek Lake, the Chesapeake Bay or the Atlantic Ocean off Ocean City and Assateague Island. But the summer boating season is also certain to suffer its customary share of accidents and fatalities — most if not all of which are preventable.

This loss of life associated with recreational boating is surely among the most frustrating statistics in public health because it’s so avoidable. In many ways, it mirrors the daily carnage on the nation’s roads — with irresponsible behavior, including the boating equivalent of drunk driving and speeding, among the chief culprits. But arguably it’s worse. Americans take to the roads and expose themselves to the inherent risk out of necessity. Boating is a luxury. There’s absolutely no reason why people need to be placed in harm’s way if everyone behaves prudently.

Take, for example, life jackets, more properly known as personal flotation devices. Under Maryland law, children under the age of 13 must wear them while any vessel is underway, and that includes not just motorboats but sailboats, canoes, kayaks and rowboats. Yet in cases of drowning, what percentage of victims were found not to be wearing one? According to the U.S. Coast Guard, that would be 84.5 percent. That’s a problem, particularly given that about three-quarters of boating accident fatalities involve drowning.

This is no minor conundrum. In 2017, the U.S. recorded 4,291 boating accidents involving 658 deaths, 2,629 injuries and approximately $46 million of damage to property, according to the Coast Guard. The fatality rate was 5.5 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels. And while that was down slightly nationwide from the previous year, Maryland’s fatality rate appears to be going in the wrong direction. In 2018, Maryland recorded 132 boating accidents that produced 16 fatalities, a 167 percent increase over 2017, according to Maryland Natural Resources Police.

While it’s too early to tell whether that trend will continue in 2019, police are broadcasting their customary warnings about life jackets and sobriety. But there’s actually quite a bit more to operating a vessel safely, and boaters — even those who are merely passengers and not owners — would be advised to take Maryland’s boating safety class (or the equivalent classes offered by the Coast Guard or U.S. Power Squadrons) which is mandated for boat operators born on or after July 1, 1972. Think of it as driver’s ed for the water set. Adults over the age of 47 can surely benefit from it as well. Sample question: How many life jackets should be on board a 26-foot boat? Answer: One wearable life jacket for every person on board plus one Type IV throwable life jacket. All must be Coast Guard approved.

And that might be the easiest question. Here are some tougher ones: What boats are required to have a daytime visual distress signal? How about a B-1 fire extinguisher? If you see another boat coming head-on, do you move toward your port or starboard? What about operating around the big cargo ships in the Chesapeake Bay? Such procedures aren’t necessarily intuitive. Even veterans can benefit from a refresher course.

Take, for example, three of the most commonly overlooked dangers — dockside electrical outlets that can be lethal under the wrong circumstances, carbon monoxide poisoning from on-board engines or generators and swimmers coming in contact with propellers. The risks associated with each are obvious, but perhaps only if one has lived around them. Boat operators are likely aware of these safety concerns, but what about their passengers, particularly those who aren’t on the water much? Those are just a few reasons why boaters need to put safety first.

That’s not to discourage people from boating. It’s one of the distinct pleasures of living in the Free State with its 200,000 or so registered vessels ready to explore its 7,719 miles of shoreline (and that’s just the tidal variety). Chances are the vast majority of those boats won’t be involved in a serious accident — or even a minor one. But just keep in mind that those who are prepared for the worst are least likely to suffer a tragedy that could have been prevented.

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