How the Pandemic Affected Boating

A Dive Into the 2020 U.S. Coast Guard Boating Safety Statistics Reveal How the Pandemic Affected Boating in Ways Just Beginning to be Understood.





ANNAPOLIS, Md., July 16, 2021 – The U.S. Coast Guard recently released the 2020 Recreational Boating Statistics, and reports of accidents, fatalities and injuries were significantly up over the prior year. While still under review, the Coast Guard believes that the primary driving factor for the significant increase in deaths was the significant increase in boating activity. The nonprofit BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water looks at some select data points in the report and offers some lessons for the future, long after America has put the pandemic in the rearview mirror.

  1. A change in the top five reasons for accidents: In 2020, the top five reported contributing factors in accidents were 1. operator inattention, 2. operator inexperience, 3. improper lookout, 4. excessive speed and 5. machinery failure. “Machinery failure,” at number five on the list, is new for 2020. While it is only a single data point, it likely indicates that a well-maintained boat is also a safer vessel. “One could reasonably assume that first-time boat owners are understandably inexperienced in boat maintenance, and some boat owners likely had difficulty getting service during the pandemic,” said BoatUS Foundation President Chris Edmonston. He also noted that, “With the limited manufacturer supply of new boats available, some older, less seaworthy boats were probably on the water that otherwise would not have been.”
  1. Operator inattention and improper lookout never change: Some may attribute the No. 1 and No. 3 reasons for accidents in 2020 solely to first-time boat owners, perhaps giving more experienced boaters a “pass.” However, to do so would be a mistake. These two factors have remained consistent across many years of Coast Guard reporting indicating perhaps, for experienced boaters, there is always room to improve boating safety.
  1. Carrying more passengers aboard: In 2020, the Coast Guard Report noted 5,265 accidents, 767 deaths and 3,191 injuries. That represents a one-year increase of 26%, 25% and 25% respectively. While not directly acknowledged in the report, Edmonston notes that when boats did head out in 2020, they did so not only with more frequency but also with more passengers aboard. “In 2020, boating provided the respite that many families needed, and no one was left at home alone on Saturday. With more aboard, however, there is likely an increase in the potential for injuries in any single accident.”
  1. The access and congestion issues: Another effect of the pandemic was the temporary loss of waterway access, as some states and localities were driven by public health concerns to reduce park or launch ramp staff. “Limiting access increased congestion and user conflict in the vicinity of those remaining open,” said Edmonston. “What we have learned is that like many other pandemic-affected outdoor activities, we need to find ways to keep access open. Perhaps technology, such as automated access, could help in the future.”

From 2019 to 2020, the total number of accidents increased 26.3 percent (4,168 to 5,265), and the number of non-fatal injured victims increased 24.7 percent (2,559 to 3,191).  There is evidence that boating activity increased significantly during the pandemic, from reports of increased boat sales, insurance policies taken out, insurance claims, and calls for towing assistance. With the increased exposure (i.e., more boating hours), there was greater risk of deaths, injuries, and accidents.  The Coast Guard is analyzing variables associated with boating activity to normalize this accident data.

Alcohol continued to be the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents in 2020, accounting for over 100 deaths, or 18 percent of total fatalities.

The report also shows that in 2020:

  • The fatality rate was 6.5 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels, the highest in the program’s recent history. This rate represents a 25 percent increase from last year’s fatality rate of 5.2 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels.
  • Property damage totaled about $62.5 million.
  • Operator inattention, operator inexperience, improper lookout, excessive speed, and machinery failure ranked as the top five primary contributing factors in accidents.
The Coast Guard reminds all boaters to boat responsibly on the water: wear a life jacket, take a boating safety course, attach the engine cut-off switch, get a free vessel safety check, and boat sober.

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