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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Driving Safely on the Water: Summer Boating Safety

Memorial Day is around the corner and that typically signals the start of the summer boating season. Unfortunately, the summer boating season will result in a lot of unnecessary deaths and injuries due to boating mishaps. It shouldn't be too surprising that most of the deaths, injuries, and damage from boating mishaps are caused by the same factors that lead to deadly collisions on America's roads; speed, driver inattention, and alcohol.

The US Coast Guard produces an annual report on boating mishap statistics. The latest report, from 2007, shows that:
• Operator inattention, careless/reckless operation, passenger/skier behavior, excessive speed, and alcohol use rank as the top five primary contributing factors in mishaps.
• Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating mishaps; it was listed as the leading factor in 21% of the deaths.
• Over two-thirds of all fatal boating accident victims drowned, and of those, 90% were not wearing a life jacket.
• Only 14% of deaths occurred on vessels where the operator had received boating safety instruction.
• Three out of every four boaters who drowned were using vessels less than 21 feet in length.
• The most common types of vessels involved in reported mishaps were open motorboats (44%), personal watercraft (24%), and cabin motorboats (15%).

While the factors leading to these tragic boating mishaps are similar to those on the highway, the environment is obviously very different and that difference is a contributing factor that leads to more risky behavior by boat owners.
Speeding/reckless operation - Unlike a roadway, a wide-open waterway offers a false sense of security that can lead a boater to push the throttles wide open while watching the scenery or skiers rather than watching the waterway ahead. Unlike a roadway, the water can easily hide underwater hazards such as floating logs, snags, and shoals. Striking one of these underwater hazards at high speed can lead to the ejection of the boat's occupants, throwing them into the water with great force. High speed also reduces the driver's reaction time and increases the collision forces. Just like in a car, the boat’s driver should always be on the lookout for hazards ahead and be prepared with an evasive action plan.
Alcohol – Boating and alcohol seem to go hand-in-hand, but the effects of the combination of sun and alcohol are very dangerous. Just like on the highway, alcohol use leads to poor judgment and risk taking behavior. While a cold beer may seem refreshing, alcohol dehydrates the body. Under a hot sun, the effects of dehydration can lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Also, the rules for alcohol consumption and driving a boat are the same as those for passenger vehicles. A boater can be arrested for “boating under the influence” (BUI) if a field sobriety test shows the driver to be over the legal limit. If you want to enjoy a drink, go ashore; limit your alcohol intake and give yourself enough time ashore for the effects of the alcohol to wear off before setting out on the water again.
Dehydration/Heat Stroke - The symptoms of heat exhaustion can come on very quickly and you may be in deep trouble before you know it. If heat exhaustion isn't treated immediately, heat stroke can set in, leading to a coma and death. While on the water, stay hydrated by sipping water or a sports drink. Avoid caffeinated soft drinks, which can also lead to dehydration. Make sure the other boat occupants are hydrated too, and look for signs such as rapid onset headaches, profuse sweating, dizziness, and nausea. Give the victim water, keep the body cool, and call 911 immediately for help.
Drowning – According to the Coast Guard report, two-thirds of boating mishap deaths were caused by drowning, often even when the victim was an experienced swimmer. Ninety percent of the drowning victims weren’t wearing a life preserver. On the highway you wear a seat belt; while that isn’t usually an option on a boat, a life preserver is the next best thing. A collision with a submerged object can throw the boat's occupants out of the boat while the boat continues to speed away. Dazed and injured victims can quickly become exhausted trying to tread water or swim ashore. Federal law requires that all occupants of a boat under the age of 13 wear a personal flotation device (PFD) at all times when they are on an open deck. State laws may be even stronger. PFDs should be worn by adults too, both for their own survival and in order to provide aid to children and other boat occupants. If you capsize or are thrown overboard, try to stay with the boat if possible. A capsized boat still provides a floating platform and it will make you more visible to rescue personnel.
Training – Only 14 percent of the boating deaths in 2007 occurred on vessels where the operator had some form of boating training. All too often, owners take a new boat out with little or no training, and this can have tragic consequences. The US Coastguard website offers a variety of training resources, including online courses. The courses teach the "rules of the road" on waterways where private boaters share space with commercial vessels. They also discuss the minimum safety equipment needed and how to handle various emergencies.

Enjoy your summer on the water, but remember that the safety of your passengers is your responsibility.

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