There were 710 deaths and 3,474 injuries in recreational boating accidents recorded by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2006, the latest year for which complete national statistics are available.
Twenty-nine children 12 and under lost their lives while boating in 2006 and 15 of them drowned. When someone else dies in a boating accident this summer, the odds are it will be because the boat operator was drunk, not watching where he or she was going, and the victim wasn’t wearing a life jacket.
Out of the 710 deaths recorded in 2006, 133 were labeled as caused by alcohol consumption — the highest single cause.
And of all the people who drowned in these accidents, about two-thirds of the fatalities, 90 percent weren’t wearing life jackets.
Two other factors, operator inattention and hazardous waters, are often overlooked yet significant. There have been a couple of disappearances of boaters in the Atchafalaya River, which could certainly be considered hazardous when it’s swollen and carrying tree trunks and other debris just under the surface. There was an accident not too long ago where a boat operator hit one of the supports of the I-10 bridge over the Basin in broad daylight and clear weather.
When looking at boating accidents altogether, inattention was the biggest cause, 611 out of 4,967. Next up was careless operation at 517, and then excessive speed, 464.
The statistics also show, not surprisingly, that small open motorboats are most likely to be involved in fatal accidents. Three hundred and forty-six deaths occurred on open motorboats, 282 in boats of all types under 16 feet, and 279 in boats between 16 and 26 feet in length.
Here in South Louisiana, boating fatalities are common enough that we don’t need statistics to tell us what’s likely to happen:
•Two boats meet in a blind bend in the bayou, one or both going too fast to avoid a collision.
•Boat hits a submerged object fast enough eject the occupants or capsize the boat.
•Boat hits a tree or the bank or a bridge support or another boat because of reduced visibility (night, rain), judgment impaired by alcohol, or for no apparent reason, at a high enough speed to kill or injure the occupants.
While excessive speed might not be the number-one direct cause of accidents or fatalities, it is certainly a constant contributing factor. And there’s a reason for that: By far most recreational boats in our area are open outboards with planing hulls. A boat designed to skim over the surface of the water doesn’t operate very satisfactorily at low speed. It yaws or squats and loads up an engine designed to operate best at 5,000 rpm. This is probably a bigger reason than alcohol why a seasoned fisherman or hunter who ought to know better will run at planing speed at night or in a flooded river or dangerously close to a stump field or approaching a blind turn.
Another interesting set of statistics from 2006: Of all the boat operators involved in accidents, only 4 percent had received training from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the U.S. Power Squadron or the American Red Cross; 7.6 percent took state-offered courses; 17.2 percent received some sort of informal training; and 71.3 percent had no training at all.
In Louisiana, all persons born after Jan. 1, 1988, must complete a boating education course and carry proof of it to operate a motorboat with more than 10 horsepower.