It’s summertime, and that means boating season! Waterways across the United States are speckled with sails, covered with wakes from motorboats and sparkling under the sun, but behind all that aquatic fun, there’s something more sinister going on, according to the United States Coast Guard: boating accidents are on the rise.
Accidents can get serious very quickly when the open water gets involved, so this is a cause for serious concern. What’s going on, and what can we do to make summer safer for people on the water?
One of the most important part of the Coast Guard’s mission is water safety for ordinary people working and having fun on lakes, rivers and coastlines. The Coast Guard is there in emergencies to help boaters, and it also actively works on accident and injury prevention. The agency helps to maintain waterways, set and enforce safety regulations and educate boaters about how to move safely through the nation’s waters, whether they’re kayaking across Lake Erie or taking a sailing jaunt down the coast of California. Since 2000, the Coast Guard has noticed a radical rise in accidents — including among its own ranks.
In San Diego, for instance, a high-speed Coast Guard craft struck a boat and killed an eight-year-old boy. That’s far from the only major incident that’s involved Coast Guard personnel, craft and equipment. In addition, numerous aviation accidents involving the agency have cost lives and resulted in substantial property damage. In many cases, the accidents have been traced to inadequate training of personnel using equipment they aren’t familiar with, creating a dangerous situation for Coast Guard members along with the public. The organization appears to be having difficulty following its own safety policies and training procedures, and on board aircraft as well as boats, this has had fatal consequences.
It’s not just the Coast Guard who’s having trouble, though. Officials have noted a variety of boating safety issues across the United States, like failure to maintain markers and indicators to help boaters navigate safely (including indicators used to make wires and other hazards clearly visible to aquatic pilots). Meanwhile, lax regulatory enforcement is proving to be a problem that poses another risk to boating safety; even if some boaters are following the rules and observing commonsense precautions, they’re put at risk by other people who are less scrupulous. In numerous states, including California and Florida, this is causing an increase in boating accidents.
The solution to the problem may require approaching it from several angles. Reforming the safety culture at the Coast Guard itself is critical, as the agency’s officers and personnel are clearly struggling to meet basic safety standards. Furthermore, the agency needs to reevaluate existing regulations, adjust them as necessary, and actually enforce them. This includes important laws on drinking while boating (a common contributory factor to accidents) and observing speed limits in harbors and bays.
Meanwhile, boaters need to take advantage of free safety classes offered by the Coast Guard and boating enthusiast groups, as participation in such courses can radically reduce the risk of becoming involved in a severe accident.
Photo credit: Thangaraj Kumaravel.