Last Sunday evening, a cabin cruiser headed down the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal started experiencing engine problems and the boat's owner decided to head to the town of North East for repairs. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, one of the passengers fell overboard into the North East River while climbing down from the flying bridge at around 8:30 p.m.

A search was conducted, a helicopter and police vessels eventually summoned and the river dragged but the body of 33-year-old James Livermore of Millersville, Pa. was not recovered until Tuesday morning. He was the 18th person to die in Maryland waters as a result of a boating accident.

Advertisement

By any standard, it has been a miserable summer for Maryland boating deaths. The 18 fatalities recorded so far this year represent the highest yearly total since 2011 when 19 people were killed, and there are four months left on the calendar.

On average over the last two decades, Maryland has experienced between 12 and 13 boating deaths per year with 2014's total of 12 and 2013's 14 being typical. This year's statistical spike doesn't necessarily reflect a long-term trend (nationally, the number of boating accidents and related injuries and deaths has generally been in decline) but it's alarming, nonetheless.

Yet there's no obvious cause for this summer to be any different other than an increase in opportunity — the nation's economic recovery and relatively inexpensive gasoline prices have provided a boost to recreational boating. The circumstances of Maryland's accidents vary (last year, the top three causes were wake, excessive speed and operator error, according to the Maryland Natural Resources Police) but they do have one thing in common.

The vast majority of those who died in local boating accidents were not wearing a life jacket or other personal flotation device. That includes Mr. Livermore, Maryland's 18th victim.

That adult boaters often resist wearing life jackets should not come as any surprise yet experts say that choice contributes to more marine fatalities than any other factor. According to a review of 2014 accident statistics by the U.S. Coast Guard, 78 percent of accident victims die of drowning, and 84 percent of those drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket.

Across the country, state and federal laws generally require children under 13 on moving boats to wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket but adults must only have them on board under most circumstances. The least expensive life jackets (the familiar orange-colored foam models) are bulky and uncomfortable on hot days. Natural Resources Police say they often find them on boats stored in some inaccessible place and still in their original wrapping.

Clearly, a life jacket kept in storage is of limited help. In a typical accident — such as last month's incident at the Francis Scott Key Bridge when a 37-foot boat struck a bridge abutment ejecting four of eight people on board — there is little opportunity to don a PFD. That accident produced the 13th and 14th boating fatalities of the year.

The Maryland General Assembly could consider strengthening boating safety laws, a topic little-addressed in the State House since the 1986 accident that killed movie director Francis Ford Coppola's 22-year-old son and caused the legislature to approve a mandatory boater education class for operators born in July of 1972 or thereafter. But the state might also simply invest more in public education and enforcement of existing requirements.

Inflatable life jackets cost more than the foam variety but they are considerably more comfortable (and perhaps even fashionable) to wear on hot days. That relatively modest investment of $150 would seem far more valuable a boat amenity than the latest fishfinder or pair of water skis. Still, boaters might not make that choice unless they fully appreciate the terrible consequences of not wearing a life vest.

How much might be accomplished through increased enforcement is not clear. Natural Resources Police have already stepped up their efforts — there were 841 safety inspections (resulting in 29 life jacket violations) conducted on the water the same weekend of the North East accident. But the agency has limited resources given the shrinking number of officers — 233 as of July 1 compared to 254 a decade ago — even as the population increases.

In many ways, the life vest dilemma is similar to the challenge of getting motorists to use seat belts and bikers to wear helmets. Nobody expects to be in an accident. Tougher laws may play a part but simply convincing people of the wisdom and necessity of that precaution might be just as effective a strategy as any official warning or citation. In any event, the state can ill afford to be left standing at the dock while the boating mortality numbers continue to rise.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement